Politics

Democrats Playing Defense in 2014 State Legislative Races

Democrats hold fewer chambers but have more at risk this year than Republicans. Here's a breakdown of what to expect in every state legislature's elections.
by | June 23, 2014
The Colorado State Capitol, where the House of Representatives convenes.
The Colorado State Capitol, where the House of Representatives convenes. David Kidd/Governing

In the battle for control of the nation's state legislatures, there are fewer competitive chambers this year than at any time since at least 2002. Still, the Democrats have more chambers at risk this cycle -- and fewer options for flipping chambers held by the GOP.

The current partisan breakdown in state legislatures is 58 Republican-held chambers and 40 Democratic-held chambers. That's a slightly smaller margin than the 61 chambers the GOP controlled in 2012. Historically, though, it's a high GOP total. As recently as the run-up to the 2010 election, the Democrats held a 62 to 36 advantage in chambers.

Today, the GOP controls both chambers in 27 states, while the Democrats control both chambers in 19; three states have one chamber controlled by each party. (Nebraska's unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.)

At this point in the campaign cycle, we find 17 chambers that are vulnerable to a change in control in November. That's far fewer chambers in play at this point in the cycle than in 2012, when there were 24 in play. It's also fewer than the 27 in play at this point in the most recent midterm election, 2010. But keep in mind that it's still early; typically, a handful of additional chambers come into play between July and October.

What should worry Democrats -- beyond 2014 being the sixth year of a Democratic presidential term -- is that they have more chambers at risk than the Republicans do. Of the 17 at-risk chambers this year, 11 are currently held by the Democrats and only six are held by the GOP.

Ominously for the Democrats, this is only the second time during the seven cycles we've been handicapping that one party has been stuck with a significantly larger share of vulnerable chambers than the other. Generally, the at-risk chambers have been split more or less equally between the parties. Only in one prior cycle was there a lopsided division of at-risk chambers: in 2010. And that year, the Democrats suffered massive losses in state legislatures.

Of the 11 chambers at risk for the Democrats, six are rated either a tossup or lean Republican. One Democratic-held chamber already leans Republican: the New Hampshire House, thanks to a GOP-friendly redistricting map. Five other Democratic chambers are rated tossups: the Colorado Senate, the Iowa Senate, the Nevada Senate, the New Mexico House and the West Virginia House. The remaining at-risk chambers are currently rated lean Democratic: the Colorado House, the Kentucky House, the Maine Senate, the Minnesota House and the Oregon Senate.

Meanwhile, among GOP-held chambers, there's currently only one that we rate as a tossup, the New York Senate. Another five Republican-held chambers are leaning Republican: the Arkansas House, the Iowa House, the New Hampshire Senate, the Washington state Senate and the Wisconsin Senate.

At-Risk Chambers
Rating Held by D Held by R Total
Lean Republican 1 5  
Tossup 5 1  
Lean Democrat 5 0  
Total 11 6 17
If this mix of competitive chambers holds, it could leave the GOP poised to pick up two or three chambers this fall. If the GOP ends up having some wind at its back, Republicans could net as many as seven or eight chambers. With the breeze blowing the other way, the Democrats could max out at a net gain of two chambers.

A big reason why fewer chambers are in play in 2014 is a long-running realignment in the South in which Democratic chambers have steadily turned over to the GOP. Chambers once controlled by moderate-to-conservative Democrats in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina have been counted as vulnerable in recent cycles when the Democratic majorities were hanging on. Now, by contrast, they are solidly Republican -- so solid that they are no longer remotely competitive.

Another factor at play this year is the GOP's ability to solidify its recent legislative gains in a core group of purple states, mainly in the Midwest. Four states that Barack Obama won twice -- Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- are collectively home to eight GOP-majority chambers, seven of which are relatively safe for Republicans this year. If the Democrats had managed to put a few more of these chambers into play, the partisan split of at-risk chambers for 2014 would have been essentially even, rather than tilted against the Democrats. But they haven't.

As always, our assessment is based on interviews with dozens of state and national political sources. We rate chambers on the following scale: safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic. The categories labeled "lean" and "tossup" are considered competitive or in play. Chambers in either of the "likely" categories are not expected to change party control on Election Day, but it's possible that the minority party could net a few seats and nibble into the majority's lead. The current partisan breakdown in each chamber comes from the National Conference of State Legislatures; seats that are vacant or held by third-party politicians are not included in the totals.

We'll continue to analyze ongoing developments in the state legislatures as the election season progresses.

ALABAMA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 23-11 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 66-37 R

The Republican takeover of the Alabama Legislature in 2010 won't be reversed any time soon, something that's also true in a number of other Southern states. The biggest competition for incumbent Alabama lawmakers came in the primaries; the Democrats aren't expected to gain much if any ground this fall.

ALASKA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 13-7 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 26-14 R

The bipartisan coalition that led the Senate from 2006 to 2012 is ancient history, thanks to a Republican-friendly redistricting in 2012. That leaves the GOP in good shape to retain solid control through at least the next redistricting after the 2020 Census. The only potential wild card is a citizen-initiated ballot measure to overturn an oil tax bill; the tax bill in the measure's crosshairs, which was backed by Gov. Sean Parnell, cut oil-production taxes when prices are high. Its presence on the ballot could boost turnout, though any resulting Democratic gains in the legislature, if they materialize, would be on the margins.

ARIZONA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 17-13 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 36-24 R

Arizona Republicans have been in control of the legislature for years, despite some intra-caucus friction between hard-liners and pragmatists. Even though Democrats can be competitive in Arizona, a midterm election doesn't seem like the party's best opportunity to make large gains. Smaller gains are possible, but at the end of the day, the GOP should be able to maintain control in both chambers.

ARKANSAS

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 22-13 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 51-48 R

After a long period of Democratic control, the GOP took the majority in both Arkansas chambers in 2012. Its hold is solid in the Senate, but the House is more iffy, with Democrats needing to net just two seats in order to flip the chamber back. The GOP is still slightly favored, but Arkansas is ground zero for a lot of competitive races this fall, including an open-seat gubernatorial race and a hard-fought U.S. Senate contest. If a wave develops from the top of the ballot, legislative races could feel the impact.

CALIFORNIA

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 28-11 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 55-25 D

California Democrats are in no danger of losing their majorities in both chambers, particularly as Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown looks strong for another term in 2014. The only danger would come from losing their two-thirds supermajority, which allows the party in power to exercise their will on budgetary and other matters without minority input.

COLORADO

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 18-17 D

House: Projected Lean D; Current 37-28 D

In purple Colorado, the Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governorship. But their grip on the Senate hangs by a thread after two Democratic lawmakers were ousted in a recall election for taking pro-gun-control stances. A half-dozen seats could be competitive, leaving the chamber a tossup. The House, meanwhile, is a bit safer for the Democrats, though still competitive. Because it's an off-year, low turnout is expected, which could benefit Republicans. But Democrats could gain if the GOP's statewide slate strays too far to the right, as seems equally possible.

CONNECTICUT

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 21-14 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 98-53 D

Even though Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy is facing a tough re-election campaign, Connecticut Democrats are in good shape to maintain their legislative majorities. They aren't expected to reach the two-thirds supermajority, however, that would allow the party to override gubernatorial vetoes, a power that would become especially important if the GOP ousts Malloy this fall.

DELAWARE

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 13-8 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 24-14 D

The Democrats will have no trouble holding on to their majorities in this blue state.

FLORIDA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 26-14 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 74-45 R

Despite a highly competitive gubernatorial race this fall and Florida's record as a purple state in presidential races, the GOP is in solid control of both chambers of the legislature. If the courts order Florida to redo its redistricting map -- a legal challenge is currently underway -- then the Democrats would have a better shot at picking up seats in 2016.

GEORGIA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 38-18 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 119-60 R

The GOP won a two-thirds supermajority in the state Senate in 2012, and just missed doing the same in the House. Achieving dual supermajorities could allow them to pass constitutional amendments without Democratic votes. The GOP stands ready to pick up another couple seats in the House this fall, making a second supermajority very possible. Either way, the GOP has a solid hold on both chambers.

HAWAII

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 24-1 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 44-7 D

Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie is experiencing a bumpy path to re-election, but in the legislature, Hawaii's Democratic majorities are ridiculously large. Even if the GOP manages to pick up seats, they'll still be far, far in the hole.

IDAHO

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 28-7 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 57-13 R

Both chambers in Idaho are solidly in Republican control. While the GOP has some internal divisions, the Democrats shouldn't be much of a factor for the foreseeable future.

ILLINOIS

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 40-19 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 71-47 D

The gubernatorial race -- a slugfest between unpopular Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn and deep-pocketed GOP businessman Bruce Rauner -- could have a trickle-down effect on state legislative contests if one of the candidates gets a strong upper hand. But the Democrats have big leads in both chambers, so the party would have to experience a major wipeout to lose its majorities. A likelier outcome is for the House Democratic supermajority to fall.

INDIANA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 37-13 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 69-31 R

Indiana's GOP majorities -- indeed, supermajorities -- are super-safe. In fact, the Republicans in the Senate could add another seat or two. Democrats are hoping that bigger turnout in the 2016 presidential election year could help them claw back a few House seats, though even then, gains in the Senate will be an uphill climb.

IOWA

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 26-24 D

House: Projected Lean R; Current 53-47 R

Iowa is one of a vanishing number of states with split legislative control. The Democratic edge in the Senate is narrow -- the GOP needs to flip just one seat to achieve a tie, and two to gain control. The GOP has a slightly larger margin in the House. The 2014 election features a relatively easy re-election bid by GOP Gov. Terry Branstad and a highly competitive open-seat U.S. Senate contest.

KANSAS

Senate: No Race; Current 32-8 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 92-33 R

GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's strongly conservative agenda has irked Democrats and moderate Republicans, making his re-election contest against Democrat Paul Davis unusually competitive. The GOP edge in the House -- the only chamber that will be contested this year -- is too massive for Democrats to pose much of a threat to Republican control. But the Democrats could gain on the margins, either by winning seats outright or by seeing moderate Republicans win seats in the August primary. A nine-seat House gain by Democrats would enable the party to thwart constitutional amendments.

KENTUCKY

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 23-14 R

House: Projected Lean D; Current 54-46 D

As most Southern legislative chambers have slipped away from the Democrats, the Kentucky House has somehow managed to remain the exception. The GOP would need a five-seat gain to take control, but that's unlikely as Republican efforts to recruit candidates turned out to be weaker than some expected. Meanwhile, the GOP-held Senate is in no danger of going Democratic. Kentucky is a big electoral battleground this year, as U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fights for his political life; it remains to be seen whether money spent on the Senate race will have a trickle-down effect on turnout for the legislature.

LOUISIANA

Senate: 26-13 R

House: 59-44 R

Neither chamber in Louisiana is contested this year.

MAINE

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 19-15 D

House: Projected Likely D; Current 89-58 D

The Maine Legislature has flipped back and forth in recent years, with the GOP taking over in 2010 and the Democrats seizing back control in 2012 (when Obama was at the top of the ballot). The Democrats' sizable majority in the state House looks durable for now, but the much narrower Democratic margin in the Senate makes a GOP takeover a possibility. The contest for the legislature hasn't fully jelled yet; much more attention is being paid to the hotly contested three-way gubernatorial race and an open-seat contest for the U.S. House.

MARYLAND

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 36-11 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 98-43 D

Races for state legislature have taken a back seat to the open-seat gubernatorial contest so far. Still, Democratic margins are large in both chambers, and no one expects GOP gains significant enough to eliminate Democratic supermajorities.

MASSACHUSETTS

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 36-4 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 131-29 D

The Democrats have massive margins in Massachusetts, and to the extent the state GOP is focusing its efforts on 2014, it's on the open-seat gubernatorial race where the Democrats are favored but not dominant.

MICHIGAN

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 26-12 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 59-51 R

Michigan may be a purple-to-blue state in presidential races, but the GOP is sitting pretty in the legislature. The Democrats would need to gain five seats to take the majority in the House, but that's a stretch; they have some pickup opportunities, but also some vulnerable seats to protect. In the Senate, the best the Democrats can hope for is to end the GOP supermajority, but that's no lock, either. With a competitive gubernatorial race (Republican Rick Snyder is seeking a second term) and an open-seat U.S. Senate race, the legislature may not attract an enormous amount of attention or money this fall

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MINNESOTA

Senate: Current 39-28 D

House: Projected Lean D; Current 73-61

The GOP would need a net gain of seven seats to take control in the House. The Democratic margin in the Senate is solid and the chamber is not up this year. The state tends to lean Democratic, but that edge could be narrower in a low-turnout, midterm election.

MISSISSIPPI

Senate: 32-20 R

House: 65-57 RS

Neither chamber in Mississippi is contested this year.

MISSOURI

Senate:Projected Safe R; Current 24-9 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 108-52 R

Once a relatively competitive state, Missouri has taken a turn to the right. The large GOP margins in both chambers are utterly solid -- and important for the GOP's continuing skirmishes with moderate Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

MONTANA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 29-21 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 61-38 R

The Democrats may hold the Montana governorship, but the Republicans' grip on the legislature seems pretty solid. Thanks to the state's conservative bent and Democrats' increasing difficulty winning in rural areas, control of the House appears safe for the GOP and is only slightly less solid in the Senate. If the Democrats do manage to make gains, the best they'd be expected to do is to flip a seat or two. But in a midterm election year where a Democratic U.S. Senate seat is in deep jeopardy -- and amid concerns about President Obama's proposed rules on carbon emissions (an unpopular policy in energy-producing states) -- even that seems a stretch.

NEBRASKA

Senate: Unicameral/Nonpartisan

Nebraska's unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan, so we do not handicap it.

NEVADA

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 11-10 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 27-15 D

The Democratic edge in the Assembly is one seat short of a supermajority and seems solid, despite the prospect of an easy re-election for GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval. The far more narrowly divided Senate is perennially under attack from the minority GOP. Three seats will be in play; the GOP has plausible contenders and a general election slate for statewide offices that's more of a draw for Republican voters. However, the districts lean modestly Democratic.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 13-11 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 220-179 D

Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan is favored to win re-election, but the Democrats may not be so lucky in the legislature. They currently control the state's massive 400-seat state House, but their reign could be short, since the Republicans benefit from a redistricting map favorable to their party. In a midterm election cycle that's more favorable to the GOP, it's entirely plausible for Republicans to net the 20 seats needed to flip the majority; after all, the chamber is known for experiencing wild swings. The much smaller state Senate is currently held by the Republicans, and the GOP has an ever-so-slight edge in keeping control.

NEW JERSEY

Senate: 24-16 D

House: 48-32 D

Neither chamber in New Jersey is contested this year.

NEW MEXICO

Senate: No Race; Current 25-17 D

House: Projected Tossup; Current 37-33 D

The state Senate isn't up this year, but control of the New Mexico House --which has been in the hands of Democrats since 1953 -- is up for grabs this year, with only a three-seat gain needed to flip the chamber. It doesn't hurt Republicans that it's a midterm election and that GOP Gov. Susana Martinez is favored to win a second term. Martinez is joined on the ticket by other Hispanic Republicans, making the ticket more ethnically diverse than in past years.

NEW YORK

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 32-29 R

House: Projected Safe D; Current 100-40 D

New York's Senate is as fluid as its House is rock-solid. A coalition of Republicans and maverick Democrats currently run the Senate. A midterm election gives the GOP a shot at winning control outright, but the left-leaning Working Families Party is trying to get Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to push for a more liberal Democratic majority. Overall, there are too many moving parts at this point to call the Senate anything but a tossup.

NORTH CAROLINA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 33-17 R

House:Projected Safe R; Current 77-43 R

North Carolina has been one of the most contentious state government battlegrounds over the past two years, thanks to the aggressively conservative agenda pursued by the House and Senate GOP majorities. But in an off-year election, the Democrats aren't expected to gain back much ground. The best the Democrats can hope for is to get the Republicans below the three-fifths supermajority threshold in one or both chambers. Considering that the GOP has a significant edge in fundraising and that competitive districts under the GOP-drawn map are relatively scarce, that seems like a stretch. The hotly contested U.S. Senate campaign between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and former GOP House Speaker Thom Tillis will likely be the biggest factor in driving turnout.

NORTH DAKOTA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 33-14 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 71-23 R

In solidly Republican North Dakota, both chambers are held by Republican supermajorities; they are safe.

OHIO

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 23-10 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 60-39 R

Ohio may swing in presidential races, but the GOP has a lock on both chambers of the legislature. At the beginning of this year, the Senate Republican caucus had a stunning 50 to 1 fundraising lead over the Democratic caucus, as well as a solid supermajority. The House GOP has a smaller, but still significant, fundraising advantage of about 20 to 1. House elections can be more volatile than the Senate, but at this point, no one expects a Democratic takeover.

OKLAHOMA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 36-12 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 72-29 R

The days when conservative Democrats ruled the Oklahoma Legislature are gone. The realignment toward Republicans in Oklahoma, hastened by Obama's unpopularity, ensures that the GOP will maintain supermajorities in both chambers.

OREGON

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 16-14 D

House: Projected Likely D; Current 34-26 D

Oregon has been such a solidly Democratic state in recent election cycles that it's not clear that the GOP will be able to take advantage of some breaks, notably the public's disaffection with the spectacular failure of the state health insurance marketplace under Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. Weighing down GOP hopes is a shortage of vulnerable seats and mediocre candidate recruitment. The narrowly divided Senate, currently controlled by the Democrats, is vulnerable to a tie or a flip. The Democrats have a somewhat more comfortable margin in the House.

PENNSYLVANIA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 27-23 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 111-92 R

Republican Tom Corbett is the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country, but the GOP's edge in the legislature seems reasonably solid. In the Senate, the Democrats would only need to flip three seats to take control of a chamber the GOP has long held, but the lineup of seats being contested is favorable to the Republicans. Meanwhile, in the House, the margin is wider, giving Republicans some room for error. If Corbett's re-election bid begins to be a down-ballot drag for the GOP, one or both of these chambers could shift to vulnerable. But there's no sign of that yet.

RHODE ISLAND

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 32-5 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 69-6 D

Rhode Island has one of the most lopsided legislatures in the nation. The Democrats have nothing to worry about.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Senate: Current 28-18 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 78-46 R

With a Republican-friendly redistricting map, there are few real competitive legislative elections on tap in South Carolina this cycle. While there's some skirmishing between establishment and Tea Party Republicans, both chambers will end up safely in the GOP camp. (The Senate is not being contested this year.)

SOUTH DAKOTA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 28-7 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 53-17 R

In solidly Republican South Dakota, the only relevant battles are between the establishment and Tea Party wings of the GOP. The Democrats aren't much of a factor here.

TENNESSEE

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 26-7 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 71-27 R

The GOP has a lock on the Tennessee Legislature.

TEXAS

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 19-12 R

House: Projected Safe R Current 95-55 R

Recent election cycles have demonstrated that Texas is growing ever-more conservative, so the GOP's current edge in the legislature seems rock solid. The House is poised to continue under the leadership of centrist conservative Joe Straus, while the Senate will most likely be run by Dan Patrick, the GOP nominee for the state's powerful position of lieutenant governor. (Democrats say Patrick may be too conservative to win over even Texas voters, but whether Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte can really knock him off remains to be seen.) Patrick is expected to relax the senate's longstanding two-thirds supermajority, which would effectively gut Democratic leverage in the chamber.

UTAH

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 24-5 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 61-14 R

The Utah Legislature is tilted massively toward the GOP. There's no chance of broad Democratic gains.

VERMONT

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 21-7 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 93-47 D

In solidly blue Vermont, the Democrats have strong majorities, and the third-party Progressives don't appear to be a threat to their control.

VIRGINIA

Senate: 20-19 R

House: 67-22 R

We won't be rating the legislature because it has no elections this year, but its volatile status demands a brief discussion regardless. The departure of a Democratic lawmaker from the tied state Senate -- flipping control of the chamber to the GOP, allegedly in exchange for a plum appointment (since turned down) and a judgeship for his daughter -- has resulted in much intrigue and a major headache for newly elected Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The governor had been hoping to expand Medicaid over GOP objections. The urgency of this dispute suggests there will be further machinations to come in the next few months.

WASHINGTON STATE

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 26-23 R

House: Projected Likely D; Current 55-43 D

The Democrats should be able to hold on to their majority in the House without much trouble, despite some strong recruiting by the GOP caucus. The Senate, currently controlled by the Republicans and one Democrat as a bipartisan coalition, is more on the edge, with several pathways for one party or the other to gain ground.

WEST VIRGINIA

Senate: Projected Likely D; Current 24-10 D

House: Projected Tossup; Current 53-47 D

On the House side, the GOP could undo a Democratic run of control that began all the way back in 1928. Some think the GOP has an edge, but we're sticking with tossup for now. In the Senate, the Democrats should be able to hold on for at least one more cycle.

WISCONSIN

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 18-15 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 60-39 R

The Wisconsin Assembly has a huge Republican advantage; the GOP-led Senate is much tighter. Three Republican senators are leaving, giving Democrats a chance to return Wisconsin to divided government despite a pro-Republican redistricting map. The governor's race could play a major role by driving turnout in this highly polarized state. For now, GOP enthusiasm is running higher than Democratic enthusiasm, but if Democrat Mary Burke gains traction against incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker, that could boost Democratic hopes down ballot.

WYOMING

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 26-4 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 52-8 R

The Wyoming Legislature is lopsidedly Republican, and Democratic chances of even marginal gains likely evaporated with the Obama administration's issuance of proposed new regulations on carbon emissions.

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