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Democrats Defy the Odds to Score Gains in Legislatures

The party took control of both chambers in Michigan and the Minnesota Senate. This may be the first time the president’s party has gained legislative seats in 20 years.

Aerial view of the Minnesota Senate chamber.
The Minnesota Senate chamber. Democrats took control of at least three state legislative chambers on Tuesday, winning the Minnesota Senate and both houses of the Michigan Legislature. (Photo: Chris Gaukel/Wikimedia Commons)
Democrats have defied history. The president’s party almost always loses state legislative seats in midterms, but Democrats took control of at least three chambers on Tuesday, winning the Michigan Legislature and the Minnesota Senate.

A number of chambers remain too close to call, including the New Hampshire House. Pennsylvania Democrats claimed victory in the state House Wednesday afternoon, although they fell short in the state Senate. It’s looking possible that both chambers in Alaska will be controlled by bipartisan coalitions, even if the GOP holds majorities on paper.

“The states we were thinking about being really competitive, like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona, are all outstanding,” says Ben Williams, who tracks elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition to their wins in Michigan and Minnesota, Democrats are celebrating the fact that they blocked Republicans from taking supermajority control in North Carolina and Wisconsin, preserving the veto power of Democratic governors in those states. “We stopped a GOP supermajority tonight when North Carolinians voted for balance and progress,” Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted Tuesday night.

Democrats gained supermajorities in both Vermont chambers. They went into the election with trifecta control of 14 states, meaning they held both the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. They can add not only Michigan and Minnesota to their list, but Maryland and Massachusetts as well, given their victories in races for governor in those states.

If the number doesn’t rise, a total of three chamber flips would be historically low. On average in recent decades, a dozen chambers have changed hands with each election cycle. “Three is certainly lower than you would have expected just a decade ago,” Williams said Wednesday morning.

Thanks to redistricting, term limits, retirements and primary losses by incumbents, roughly a quarter of the legislators elected Tuesday will be new to office. Despite that high rate of turnover, there was comparatively little partisan change.

Republicans still have total control of more than 20 states. The GOP has dominated state politics since the 2010 elections, holding majorities in terms of both governorships and legislative chambers. That continues. This was the first election following this decade’s redistricting cycle, and states that Democrats targeted two years ago, such as Georgia and Texas, were never in contention this year.

“State Republicans still managed to preserve their hold on to an overwhelming majority of state legislatures throughout the country, secure a veto-proof supermajority in Florida and gain supermajorities in the North Carolina Senate, Wisconsin Senate, Iowa Senate and South Carolina House,” says Andrew Romeo, communications director for the Republican State Leadership Committee.

But Democrats managed to defy both conventional wisdom and historical odds. Since 1900, according to Williams, the president’s party has only gained legislative seats in two midterm elections — the New Deal election of 1934 and the post-Sept. 11 elections in 2002. The net change in partisan control of seats isn’t clear yet, but it’s Democrats who came away with important chamber wins.

“Democrats are on track to overcome historic odds defending our majorities in key states and even flipping the legislatures in Minnesota and Michigan,” Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “Republicans had everything in their favor: Record fundraising and a midterm political environment under a Democratic president, and they have little to show for it.”

How Democrats Won

Republicans have controlled the Michigan Senate for the past 40 years. A combination of factors allowed Democrats to win. An abortion-rights measure drew out women and younger voters, and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won her race by a sizable margin over Republican Tudor Dixon. “I think that a lot of pundits and a lot of people underestimated the power of the Dobbs decision in motivating Democratic voters, in particular Gen Z voters and suburban women,” says Democratic consultant Michael Sargeant.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer smiling and waving as she celebrates her re-election victory.
Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, celebrates her re-election victory. In Tuesday’s elections, Democrats added Michigan and three other states to the list of those over which they have trifecta control, holding the governership and majorities in both legislative chambers. (Jacob Hamilton/TNS)
In Michigan, Democrats’ chances were boosted by district maps drawn for the first time by an independent commission. “The commission set it up so the winner of the statewide vote was very likely to win majorities in both chambers of the Legislature,” says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “Without the new maps, Republicans had such an advantage in [prior] redistricting and geographic sorting in Michigan that they could lose the statewide vote substantially and still retained majorities.”

As in Pennsylvania, the margins in key Michigan House races were miniscule. Democrats will hold only narrow majorities when the legislative session starts in January. “When it comes to budget politics, they’ll want Republican support,” Grossmann says.

A Trifecta in Minnesota

Minnesota’s legislative chambers have been the nation’s most volatile over the past decade. Following the 2018 elections, Minnesota was the only state to come away with a divided legislature — the first time that had happened since World War I. It was the same result in 2020: a narrow Democratic majority in the House and a narrow Republican majority in the Senate.

Republicans hoped that the concentration of the Democratic vote in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region would allow them to rack up seats throughout the rest of the state. Democrats held onto key seats in the Twin Cities suburbs, emphasizing the importance of abortion and school funding, while also winning just enough seats in the northeastern part of the state that had been tipping red.

This is the first time Democrats have won trifecta control in Minnesota since 2012.

“We continuously saw all these public polls that showed Republicans were gaining and inflation was foremost on everybody’s mind,” says Sargeant, the Democratic consultant, describing the national picture. “Last night’s results show that the Democratic coalition of suburban women, college-educated women and Gen Z is durable.”

This story has been updated. Governing’s election coverage will continue this week as remaining races are called. For more analysis, subscribe to our politics newsletter, Inside Politics: State & Local with Alan Greenblatt.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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