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Can Democrats Make Inroads in State Legislatures This Year?

Democrats picked up four chambers in 2022 but struggle to get their voters to concentrate on down-ballot contests.

Last year, Joanna McClinton became the first woman and first Black person to serve as speaker of the Pennsylvania House, thanks to Democrats' narrow victory in that chamber in 2022.
Tom Gralish/TNS
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Spring 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

Buoyed by significant victories in 2022 and 2023, Democrats are well-positioned for gains this November. They will continue to win on issues that are top of mind for voters, including abortion. And fairer district maps, especially new ones approved in February in Wisconsin, present fresh opportunities. 

Republicans have controlled a majority of legislative chambers ever since 2010, but Democrats have chipped away at their advantage. In 2022, Democrats took over chambers in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Remarkably, that year was the first midterm since 1934 in which the president’s party did not lose a single state chamber.

State legislative races and chambers are often decided by astonishingly small margins. Two years ago, for example, just 63 votes in a single district flipped Pennsylvania’s House blue. Every vote is crucial at this level, but down-ballot Democrats face a significant challenge: They experience ballot roll-off much more frequently than down-ballot Republicans.

Incredibly, our research reveals a stark partisan skew to the phenomenon in which citizens cast votes for the top of the ticket, but not the bottom of their ballots. Across 10 battleground states over eight years, contested down-ballot Democratic candidates experienced ballot roll-off 80 percent of the time, compared to just 37 percent for Republicans.

Despite these challenges, Democrats are well-positioned this year to maintain control of vulnerable chambers, flip a few more and make inroads in longer-term strategic targets. They have a tremendous opportunity to flip both chambers in Arizona, needing just two seats in each. Other potential blue flips include both of New Hampshire’s chambers and the Pennsylvania Senate, while major change in the “democracy desert” of Wisconsin, long plagued by Republican gerrymandering, opens new possibilities.

Aside from each of these chambers being close to partisan parity, all these states voted for Joe Biden in 2020. This is a strong predictor of legislative chambers changing party control. In states where at least one chamber changed hands from 2011 to 2020, this shift followed the state’s presidential vote for the same party 88 percent of the time.

Key defensive battles this year include the statehouses in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania. But in states such as Georgia and North Carolina — where achieving legislative majority may currently be out of reach — Democrats have opportunities to make inroads by investing in inspiring candidates in competitive districts. 

Importantly, each state on the Democrats’ legislative road map is also a presidential battleground. Democrats can multiply their efforts and impact across the ballot by leveraging organizing opportunities in areas with overlapping races.

With such slim margins and wide partisan gaps in roll-off, Democrats must break through the noise of the presidential election and engage in a different type of persuasion — convincing voters to leave no box unticked.

Gaby Goldstein, an attorney and researcher, is a co-founder of Sister District, which builds progressive power in state legislatures.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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