A Month Before Election Day, Democrats Poised for Legislative Gains

While they likely won't win a majority nationwide, the party is poised to gain control of some chambers. How many depends on the size of the potential blue wave.
by | October 8, 2018
The Wisconsin Capitol in Madison (David Kidd)

The last time we handicapped the state legislatures in May, the Democrats were in a good position to gain ground this fall. Five months later, their chances look even better.

Since then, Democrats' chances of gaining the majority have improved in nine chambers, compared to just one for the Republicans. Republicans currently have 11 chambers at risk of flipping party control, compared to just four for the Democrats.

In addition, we're rating the Minnesota Senate for the first time this cycle. After a vacancy emerged in late May, the previously Republican-held chamber became tied. A special election in November will decide control. We're rating it lean Republican.

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.

All told, we see 17 competitive chambers at this point, very close to the number of competitive chambers in May and to the number in 2014 -- the most recent election cycle with a strong partisan wave.

Of those competitive chambers that are controlled by Republicans, three lean Democratic (the New Hampshire Senate and House and the New York Senate); three are tossups (the Colorado Senate, the Maine Senate and the Wisconsin Senate); and five lean Republican (the Arizona Senate, the Florida Senate, the Iowa House, the Michigan House and the Minnesota House).

Among the competitive Democratic-held chambers, none currently lean Republican, and only one rates as a tossup -- Alaska's House. Three others are vulnerable enough to fall into the lean Democratic category: the Connecticut House, the Delaware Senate and the Maine House.

There are two tied chambers -- the senates in Connecticut and Minnesota -- that are also in play. Connecticut is a tossup and Minnesota is lean Republican.

Rating Held by D Held by R Tied Total
Lean Republican 0 5 1 6
Tossup 1 3 1 5
Lean Democrat 3 3 0 6
Total 4 11 2 17
 

Of the nine chambers moving in the Democrats' direction since our May ratings, three are no longer considered competitive and are rated likely Democratic: the Colorado House and the Washington state House and Senate. Three chambers moved out of tossup and into the lean Democratic category: both chambers in New Hampshire and the New York Senate. And one chamber moved from lean Republican to tossup -- the Wisconsin Senate.

The only chamber moving in the Republicans' direction since May is the Alaska House, which moves from lean Democratic to tossup.

 

How Big Will the 2018 Blue Wave Be?

Currently, the GOP holds control of more than two-thirds of the nation's legislative chambers: 65 in all, compared to 31 for the Democrats. (This tally counts New York's Senate as Republican and Alaska's House as Democratic, but both states are led by bipartisan coalitions. Meanwhile, Nebraska's unicameral legislature, which is nonpartisan, isn't included in our count.)

It's worth noting that the degree of Republican vulnerability in 2018 is smaller than it was for the Democrats in 2010. That year, we considered 25 Democratic chambers to be in play. Of course, that election was held prior to the 2010 Census round of redistricting, which ultimately bolstered Republican legislative prospects in a number of previously competitive states. Those 2010-drawn lines now protect Republicans in many states, limiting Democratic options for flipping chambers this year.

In a neutral political environment -- one without a partisan wave -- our handicapping might produce a net Democratic gain of two to three chambers. But Election Day 2018 is not shaping up to be a neutral political environment.

As we wrote in May, if a wave only favors the Democrats modestly, we might see a four- to seven-chamber gain for the Democrats. If a larger wave materializes, Democrats could take a bigger bite out of the GOP's state-by-state advantage -- a net switch of eight to 14 chambers.

Despite the Democrats' strong position, it's worth injecting a note of caution. Even a net switch of 14 chambers toward the Democrats would leave Republicans with a national edge in chambers of 51-46.

 

Legislative Ratings: State by State

Listed below these maps are our ratings, with state-by-state analysis. For a more interactive version of the maps, and ratings for other races, click here.

The data for 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.

 

 

 

ALABAMA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 25-8 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 72-32 R

Alabama is so red that it will take more than a Democratic wave to change the partisan status quo in the legislature.

ALASKA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 14-6 R

House: Projected Tossup; Current 21 R-17 D (Democrats control in a cross-party coalition; shift from lean Democratic)

Alaska's Senate is safely in Republican hands, but control of the House -- governed by a narrow, Democratic-led coalition -- is up for grabs. A wide lead by Republican gubernatorial nominee Mike Dunleavy in the three-way race against incumbent Independent Gov. Bill Walker and Democrat Mark Begich could boost Republican chances for a takeover.

ARIZONA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 17-13 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 35-25 R

Democrats are three seats away from flipping the Arizona Senate. But to ultimately take control, they would have to unseat some battle-tested Republican lawmakers. In addition, early indicators suggest that enthusiasm among Latino voters, a crucial electorate for Democrats, is not as strong as has been expected. Unless they turn out, the Arizona Senate could stay in Republicans' hands.

ARKANSAS

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 25-9 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 75-24 R

Arkansas Democrats might be able to snag a few extra seats this fall, but the GOP's majorities are wide enough to remain secure.

CALIFORNIA

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 25-14 D

Assembly: Projected Safe D; Current 55-25 D

Thanks to President Trump's unpopularity in the state, Democrats, who already possess lopsided control of both chambers, may be able to expand their margins even further this fall.

COLORADO

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 18-16 R

House: Projected Likely D; Current 36-29 D (shift from lean Democratic)

The Democrats continue to have high hopes of flipping the GOP-controlled Colorado Senate. Democratic allies, including EMILY's List, have been spending millions in an effort to flip the closely held chamber.

Meanwhile, with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jared Polis ahead by a few points in recent polls, the GOP's hope of flipping the Democratic-held House faces longer odds.

CONNECTICUT

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 18-18

House: Projected Lean D; Current 80-71 D

Thanks to a close race for governor, both chambers are in play. Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy's unpopularity has been a major source of concern for his party. But Democrats are breathing a little easier since polls showed their nominee, Ned Lamont, leading Republican nominee Bob Stefanowski by the low-double digits.

DELAWARE

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 11-10 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 25-16 D

Ten of the Senate's 21 seats are up this year. It's hard to imagine the blue state of Delaware losing Democratic seats in 2018, but as early as 2017, the chamber was been tied when a special election for a vacant seat was held. The stakes then were so serious that the contest drew national attention and money. Given that a single seat flipping to Republicans could change control, this remains lean Democratic.

FLORIDA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 23-16 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 76-41 R

For the first time in a quarter-century, Florida Democrats have a genuine chance of seizing control of a state legislative chamber -- contesting more seats than they have in recent election cycles. While the party stands a good chance of picking up seats in both chambers, they'd have to make up too much ground in the House to make it genuinely competitive.

The much closer Senate, though, should be in play. The deciding factor will be the governor's race, which pits a staunch liberal against a staunch conservative. Its impact on turnout is uncertain; it's possible we could shift either or both chambers further in the Democrats' or Republicans' direction before Election Day. But until the situation clarifies itself, we're keeping both chambers' ratings unchanged.

GEORGIA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 37-19 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 116-64 R

Like Florida, Georgia has a sharp ideological contest for governor this fall, with an uncertain impact on turnout. But demographic changes and political shifts should produce some Democratic gains this fall, especially in the Atlanta suburbs. That said, the margins in Georgia remain too wide for Democrats to be optimistic about flipping either chamber outright in 2018.

HAWAII

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 24-0 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 46-5 D

The extreme Democratic lead in both chambers make the Hawaii Legislature among the safest in the nation for Democrats.

IDAHO

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 29-6 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 59-11 R

There's a possibility of minor Democratic gains given the few GOP retirements and departures -- but nothing big enough to change the makeup of either chamber.

ILLINOIS

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 37-22 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 66-50 D

With Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner facing a rough reelection battle -- and the state unhappy with President Trump -- this doesn't look like the year for Republicans to make gains in either chamber. A bonus for Democrats is that gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker is heavily funding his own campaign, leaving pro-Democratic outside groups able to devote their money and time to shoring up control of the legislature.

Pritzker is going through a bad patch, though. Earlier this month, Cook County's inspector general declared that Prizker cheated taxpayers through fraudulently representing his mansion to secure $330,000 in property tax breaks. Still, Rauner is in such a big hole that it may not be enough to stop Pritzker's juggernaut.

Republicans, meanwhile, are less than unified as they grapple with an internal war between establishment Republicans and a more staunchly free-market wing championed by deep-pocketed donor Richard Uihlein. In a strong year for Democrats, this will hurt them even further. Rauner already struggled to beat an underfunded rival running to his right during the primary.

INDIANA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 41-9 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 70-30 R

The Democrats are targeting five Republican seats in the Senate, but while they could ultimately flip a few, the GOP edge is so big that it won't matter. In the House, the Democrats could flip anywhere from five to nine seats, but again, the GOP margin is wide enough to maintain the majority.

IOWA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 29-20 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 58-41 R (Shift from safe Republican)

Iowa, which shifted dramatically toward Trump in the 2016 election, appears to be swinging back in the other direction this year. In the Senate, Republicans may be able to maintain or increase their majority. But Democrats are poised to eat into the GOP's margin in the House. With the combination of Republican retirements and Democratic enthusiasm, they have an outside chance of taking the majority.

KANSAS

Senate: No Races; Current 31-9 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 85-40 R

The Kansas House, which is the only chamber in the state to be contested this fall, will remain in Republican hands. But if moderate Republicans manage to gain enough ground, they could work with Democrats to shape key bills.

KENTUCKY

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 27-11 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 63-37 R

Kentucky, which has all but completed its transition into a solidly Republican state, is not promising territory for Democrats to gain back legislative ground, even in a favorable year like 2018. Expect continued Republican control in both chambers.

LOUISIANA

Senate: 25-14 R

House: 61-40 R

Neither chamber in Louisiana is contested this year.

MAINE

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 18-17 R

House: Projected Lean D; Current 74-70 D

Both chambers in this swing state remain in play, especially with a highly competitive gubernatorial race. A few more House Republicans are term-limited this year than are House Democrats, opening up some opportunities for the party. In the Senate, though, a competitive race by Republican gubernatorial nominee Shawn Moody may help Republicans keep their narrow lead.

MARYLAND

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 33-14 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 91-50 D

Both chambers in Maryland are solidly Democratic. The only issue is whether Republican Gov. Larry Hogan -- who's popular in the blue state despite his party affiliation -- can run well enough to oust enough incumbents to sustain vetoes. Currently, both chambers are veto-proof; the Democrats have more than the 85 representatives and 29 senators they need to override Hogan's vetoes.

MASSACHUSETTS

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 31-7 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 117-34 D

Massachusetts' lopsidedly Democratic majorities remain solid in 2018 and beyond.

MICHIGAN

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 27-10 R

House: Projected Lean R; Current 63-46 R

In the Senate, 27 seats will be open due to term limits, most of them Republican. Still, the GOP margin is solid enough that a flip in control is unlikely.

A smaller percentage of seats are open in the House. But since it is more narrowly divided than the Senate, it could be in play -- especially with the governor's race leaning the Democrats' way.

MINNESOTA

Senate: Projected Lean R; Current 33-33 (special election)

House: Projected Lean R; Current 77-56 R (shift from likely Republican)

The tied state Senate will be decided by a special election for a seat that became vacant in late May after Republican Michelle Fischbach was appointed lieutenant governor. The seat is in a Republican-friendly district, but both sides are throwing everything at the seat since it's the key to controlling the chamber.

As for the House, one of the most competitive seats has already effectively flipped after the GOP candidate withdrew amid allegations of sexual assault from his daughter. In addition, at least 15 suburban GOP members are facing a significant backlash thanks to Trump's growing unpopularity there. We're shifting the rating from likely Republican to lean Republican.

MISSISSIPPI

Senate: 33-19 R

House: 73-47 R

Neither chamber in Mississippi is contested this year.

MISSOURI

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 23-9 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 112-47 R

With Missouri's Republican governor, Eric Greitens, out of the way -- he resigned after allegations of sexual impropriety -- Democrats don't look as likely to benefit in legislative races. The party may be able to gain a few seats, but the GOP's margins are too big to lose control in one cycle.

MONTANA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 32-18 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 59-41 R

While Trump's popularity in the state has waned somewhat in recent months, it's not likely to affect legislative races in Montana.

NEBRASKA

Senate: Unicameral/Nonpartisan

Nebraska's unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan, so we don't handicap it.

NEVADA

Senate: Projected Likely D; Current 10-8 D

Assembly: Projected Likely D; Current 27-14 D

In the Senate, despite the tight margin, Democratic incumbents look solid. The Assembly, meanwhile, doesn't appear to have enough vulnerable Democratic seats to flip, either.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 14-10 R (shift from tossup)

House: Projected Lean D; Current 214-170 R (shift from tossup)

In recent election cycles, New Hampshire has been one of the nation's most closely divided states and most likely to swing. Despite the state House's enormous size, it has been known to flip control during wave elections. And even with GOP Gov. Chris Sununu showing an edge in his reelection bid, independent observers think Democrats are gaining momentum in legislative races. We're shifting both chambers from tossup to lean Democratic.

NEW JERSEY

Senate: 25-15 D

Assembly: 54-26 D

Neither chamber in New Jersey is contested this year.

NEW MEXICO

Senate: No elections this year. Current 26-16 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 38-31 D

New Mexico is a state where the Democrats can expect a boost this fall. They are already in control of both chambers, and modest gains in the House are possible; Democrats are favored in the gubernatorial race following two terms by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, and the national Democratic environment doesn't hurt.

NEW YORK

Senate: Projected Lean D; Current 32 D-31 R (cross-party coalition; shift from tossup)

Assembly: Projected Safe D; Current 104-41 D

The state Senate has long been under Republican control, even when that required forming a cross-party coalition with renegade Democrats. But that increasingly looks likely to come to an end. There are numerous open seats, many of them in competitive areas such as the Hudson Valley, and progressive candidates exhibited substantial energy in primaries. We're shifting the chamber from tossup to lean Democratic.

NORTH CAROLINA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 34-15 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 75-45 R

The Democrats are poised to pick up seats in both chambers, especially in the House. The national energy has helped the party field candidates in every legislative district. There would have to be a significant wave for the GOP to lose control -- the GOP-drawn map gives Republicans an edge -- but it's looking likelier than a few months ago that the Democrats could pick up enough seats to break the GOP supermajority in either chamber, handing Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper a weightier veto threat.

NORTH DAKOTA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 38-9 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 81-13 R

North Dakota's strong Republican margins are not in danger of eroding this year.

OHIO

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 24-9 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 64-33 R

The House is vulnerable to GOP losses thanks to scandals and leadership squabbles. But the GOP edge in the House is wide and should be able to outlast even a sizable Democratic wave.

Only half the seats in the Ohio Senate are up in any cycle, which makes it less susceptible to wave conditions. But the Democrats could gain a modest number of seats in the chamber.

OKLAHOMA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 39-8 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 72-28 R

The Oklahoma Senate is certain to stay in Republican hands, with only 24 of 48 seats up this cycle and a big GOP edge. But dissatisfaction with Republican Gov. Mary Fallin and a battle over education funding has energized Democrats, producing a surprisingly close gubernatorial race. If any Democratic gains are to materialize, it's likelier to happen the House.

OREGON

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 17-13 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 35-25 D

The Democratic margins in the Oregon Legislature are modest, but it's a blue enough state in a blue enough year to be considered safe. Democrats may even be able to secure the one seat in each chamber that they need to gain a three-fifths supermajority. But amid a closer-than-expected gubernatorial race for incumbent Democrat Kate Brown, the chances of that happening have diminished somewhat since our last ratings.

PENNSYLVANIA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 33-16 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 121-82 R

One might think that Pennsylvania would be a good prospect for flipping a Republican chamber or two, given the Democrats' strong edge in races for U.S. senator, governor and several House seats. But redistricting has provided legislative Republicans some insurance even in a difficult political environment. Still, the Democrats should be able to gain back a modest number of seats.

RHODE ISLAND

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 33-4 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 64-11 D

Despite a competitive gubernatorial race, the large Democratic majorities in the state legislature look solid for 2018. That said, there could be an ideological shift to the left within the Democratic caucus, and that could provoke a leadership fight that unseats Speaker Nick Mattiello.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Senate: No Races; Current 27-18 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 80-44 R

In this solidly red state, the GOP will be in good shape to retain its sizable majority in the House.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 28-6 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 59-10 R

The open-seat gubernatorial contest is turning surprisingly competitive for the Democrats, but the Republicans are in no danger of losing significant ground in legislative races. The only contest of note will be between conservative Republicans and very conservative Republicans.

TENNESSEE

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 28-5 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 73-25 R

There may be a few more seats in play than usual in Tennessee, thanks in part to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's credible run for the U.S. Senate. Still, significant Democratic gains are unlikely in this formidably red state.

TEXAS

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 20-11 R

House: Projected Likely R; Current 93-55 R

Even though Democrats are excited about Beto O'Rourke's chances of knocking off Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, don't expect major Democratic gains in the state legislature. In the Senate, only one seat is considered genuinely in play, and that district leans Republican.

Democratic gains are likelier in the House, though, where Democrats are contesting an unusually large number of seats. That said, a double-digit increase seems like a stretch. Perhaps more important is the question of who might succeed the retiring speaker, Joe Straus, a moderate Republican backed by a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

UTAH

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 24-5 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 61-13 R

Democrats might be able to make some marginal gains, but Utah Republicans are in no danger of losing significant clout in this red state.

VERMONT

Senate: Projected Safe D; Current 21-7 D

House: Projected Safe D; Current 83-53 D

Democrats will hold on to both chambers in Vermont. The more pressing question is whether Republicans will lose enough races to lose their ability to sustain a veto by GOP Gov. Phil Scott.

VIRGINIA

Senate: 21-19 R

House: 51-49 R

Neither chamber in Virginia is contested this year.

WASHINGTON STATE

Senate: Projected Likely D; Current 26-23 D (shift from lean Democratic)

House: Projected Likely D; Current 50-48 D (shift from lean Democratic)

Even Republicans in the state are downbeat about the prospects of flipping either chamber in a blue state in a blue year. Despite the narrow margins, we're moving both chambers in this blue state from lean Democratic to likely Democratic.

WEST VIRGINIA

Senate: Projected Likely R; Current 22-12 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 64-36 R

West Virginia remains Trump country, and the GOP's margins in both chambers are sizable. Democratic gains, if any, should be modest.

WISCONSIN

Senate: Projected Tossup; Current 18-15 R (shift from lean Republican)

Assembly: Projected Likely R; Current 64-35 R

Democrats are optimistic about their chances in the state Senate, where they need only net two seats to take control. They've already flipped two seats in special elections. Democrats are benefiting from Trump's unpopularity in the suburbs and a competitive governor's race between GOP Gov. Scott Walker and his Democratic opponent, Tony Evers. Given this, we're shifting the Senate to tossup. By contrast, the GOP's margin in the Assembly should be large enough to hold, despite the possibility of some modest losses.

WYOMING

Senate: Projected Safe R; Current 27-3 R

House: Projected Safe R; Current 51-9 R

The Republican majorities in Wyoming have nothing to worry about in 2018.