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Legislative Turnover at Lowest Level Seen Since 1920s

Republicans continue their dominance at the state level, with Democrats failing to take chambers ahead of redistricting. Two chambers leaders were unseated, while several states saw demographic breakthroughs.

The Minnesota state capitol. Democrats needed just two seats to flip the Minnesota Senate, but didn't make it. (Shutterstock)
Tuesday’s election marked the last chance for the political parties to increase their share of state legislatures in time to run the next redistricting cycle. The results mean Republicans will maintain advantages they’ve held at the state level over the past decade.

Republicans won the New Hampshire Senate and House. They also appear on track to win the Alaska House, which they controlled on paper but has been run by a coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans.

That’s it. By Friday, it appeared that Democrats had fallen short in their hopes of taking the Arizona House, the last chamber they had a chance of flipping.

The legislative map has grown more stable in recent years, but now it appears completely static. The number of new legislative majorities this year is the lowest since at least 1944, when four chambers switched hands. If this year’s total stays at three, it will be the least amount of turnover since 1928, when just one chamber flipped, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “The lack of partisan change in the states is jaw dropping,” note Tim Storey and Wendy Underhill of NCSL.

The only governorship to change hands was Montana, where GOP Congressman Greg Gianforte was the party’s first winner since 2000. With their victories in Montana and New Hampshire, Republicans will now control everything – governor and legislature – in 23 states, compared to 15 for the Democrats.

“What’s very clear is state Republicans were extremely successful,” says Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “In our target states, we won everything we set out to win.”

The historical average is for a dozen legislative chambers to change hands each election cycle. In 2010, Republicans won control of 20, putting them in the driver’s seat for redistricting in the last decade. Counting their victories last year in the Virginia House and Senate last year, it looks like Democrats have made a net gain of one chamber for the cycle.

Democrats needed just two seats to flip the Minnesota Senate, but didn't make it. Since they held the state House, Minnesota remains the only state with a divided legislature in the country. Prior to Minnesota's split in 2018, the last time the nation had only one divided legislature was back in 1914.

The New Mexico House has become the fourth chamber ever to have a majority of members who are women. “We had several historic firsts,” says Christina Polizzi, national press secretary of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). “When chambers are seated next year, they’re going to look more like the communities they represent.”

The gains Republicans cemented with the 2010 election are still largely fixed in place. The DLCC and newer groups such as Forward Majority and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee each poured tens of millions of dollars into legislative races, but fell short of their hopes of taking chambers in states such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Iowa and Wisconsin.

In Texas – on track to gain two or three congressional seats this decade – Democrats hoped to win the nine additional seats they needed to take over the state House, after flipping a dozen seats in 2018. Instead, it appears they scored a net gain of zero. GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign alone devoted some $6 million to preserving the party’s majority.

“At the end of the day, Trump was able to turn out some voters in Republican districts,” Polizzi says. “Given these dynamics -- if you combine that with gerrymandered maps -- the outcome of this election is not terribly surprising.”

Polizzi says Democrats will still head into redistricting in 2021 in better shape than they were back in 2011. The party’s gains in 2018 will give them control or protect them in some states where they retain the governor’s veto. And states such as Michigan have created independent commissions that will take over redistricting. Michigan’s maps were ruled an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals but were allowed to stand last year by the U.S. Supreme Court

“Democrats will start this decade in a much stronger position than they started the last decade,” says Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for Daily Kos, a progressive site that raises money for Democratic candidates. “Is it the position they wanted? No, but you play the hand you’re dealt.”

Republicans like the hand they’re holding. Democrats have long complained that unfair partisan gerrymanders have kept even purple states from being competitive, but they have mostly been unable to change that equation. “State legislatures are going to be controlled by Republicans for the rest of time,” reporter Jake Blumgart tweeted on Thursday. 

Maybe not that long. But, in many states, probably for the foreseeable future. 

“With the position we’ll be in after this week, the Republican Party will be able to secure a decade of power across the country,” Chambers says. “It was something the Democrats were desperate for and they came up well short of what they tried to do.”

Red States Get Redder

The GOP appears to have compiled a modest gain in seats nationwide, adding somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 seats, out of the 5,876 at stake on Tuesday.

Republicans added several seats to their majorities in states such as Iowa, South Dakota and Wyoming. They picked up rural seats across the country, including blue or purple states such as Oregon and Pennsylvania.

While red states got redder, Democrats made notable gains in already-blue states including Maine, Connecticut and Delaware. But in general, the party failed to make further incursions into GOP suburbs after racking up most of their gains there in 2018. “It seems as though in some chambers Democrats may have maxed out in 2018,” Fiddler says.

Two Democratic House speakers lost their seats – Nicholas Mattiello of Rhode Island and Mitzi Johnson of Vermont. Johnson is calling for a recount following her apparent loss by an 18-vote margin. 

The state Senate presidents of Alaska, New Mexico and West Virginia lost earlier this year in primaries. So did David McBride, the president pro tem of the Delaware Senate.




 (Maps: NCSL)  


He’ll be replaced by another McBride – Sarah McBride, who drew national attention as the first openly transgender individual ever elected to a state Senate. In addition, Stephanie Byers was elected to the Kansas House and Taylor Small to the Vermont House, while all three trans incumbents on the ballot won re-election. The number of openly transgender legislators – which was zero in 2017 – has nearly doubled to seven.

According to LGBTQ Victory Fund, 150 out LGBTQ individuals are currently serving in state legislatures. The political action committee endorsed 155 state legislative candidates this year. So far, 100 have won their elections, including 35 non-incumbents. Thirty-five other races are undecided.

Many of the winners are pathfinders. Eddie Mannis and Torrey Harris will be the first out legislators in Tennessee, while Jessica Benham will be the first out woman to serve in the Pennsylvania Legislature. The first LGBTQ women of color are joining the New York and Florida legislatures, as well as the state Senates in Georgia and Rhode Island.

Tara Simmons, an advocate for criminal justice reform, became the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the Washington Legislature. Convicted on felony drug and weapons charges, she attended law school after her release, graduating magna cum laude and winning a court battle for the right to take the bar exam.

QAnon at the Capitol

The progressive nonprofit group Media Matters for America identified about two-dozen legislative candidates it describes as supporters of QAnon, or at least friendly to the idea. QAnon is a loosely organized network of adherents to a conspiracy theory that suggest Satan-worshiping, child-trafficking Democrats, celebrities and media figures are working with a "deep state" bureaucracy to undermine President Trump.

None of the most active or vocal supporters were elected, but a few with loose associations won. Rob Chase, newly elected to the Washington House, reportedly directed his Facebook followers to QAnon posts or podcasts on numerous occasions, and wrote a blog post describing the movement as part of a battle against the deep state that has been going on “at least a few hundred years.” Mark Szuszkiewicz, who has declared victory in his race for the New York Assembly, has repeatedly used QAnon hashtags in tweets, including one amplifying a baseless QAnon theory that actor Tom Hanks might have accepted an honorary Greek citizenship because of the country’s view that pedophilia is a disability rather than a crime.

“There are definitely going to be a handful of QAnon members of state legislatures,” says Fiddler, the Daily Kos spokeswoman. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the Republicans in charge manage their new colorful members.”

Separately, there was one sad and ironic outcome that drew considerable attention from social media and national news outets. David Andal, won a seat in the North Dakota House, although he died due to COVID-19 last month.

Gov. Doug Burgum, who won a second term on Tuesday, wasted no time in naming a replacement on Wednesday, but state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the governor does not have the authority to do so. 

Burgum, who once ran a software company that sold to Microsoft for $1 billion, had devoted $1.85 million to unseating Jeff Delzer, who chairs the state House Appropriations Committee, in the primary. Under state law, a party committee gets to fill the seat, which could potentially restore Delzer to office.

In Wyoming, Marshall Burt won election to the state House, becoming the first Libertarian candidate to win a legislative seat anywhere in the country since 2002, and the first to win without being affiliated with another party since the 1990s.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for <i>Governing</i> and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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