Despite Democratic Gains, GOP Still Dominant in State Legislatures

The Colorado state capitol.

The Colorado state capitol. shutterstock

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Republicans now hold about two dozen more state legislative chambers around the U.S. than Democrats.

While five state legislative chambers around the U.S. shifted from Republican to Democratic control as a result of Tuesday’s elections, the GOP will still retain a wide advantage when it comes to wielding power in statehouses.

Republicans are on track to control at least 61 state legislative chambers going forward, compared to the Democrats' 37, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A sixth Democratic pickup was in the Connecticut Senate, which had been evenly divided.

Democrats had some notable wins. For instance, they flipped both chambers of New Hampshire’s legislature. And they took control of the state Senate in Colorado, meaning the party will now have a “trifecta,” also controlling the House and the governor’s mansion.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who hails from Boulder, won the governor’s race with about 51 percent of the vote, and will replace term-limited Democrat John Hickenlooper.

“It was not a blue wave around the country, but it surely was here,” said Mike Krause, director of public affairs for the Colorado-based libertarian think-tank the Independence Institute.

Meanwhile, Republican incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu prevailed in his reelection bid for a second two-year term, defeating Molly Kelly, a former member of the New Hampshire state Senate. This sets up a unique situation in the state, with the governor and Legislature on opposite sides, according to Chris Galdieri, an associate professor in the politics department at Saint Anselm College, in Manchester.

“This particular state of affairs, as far as I can tell, has literally never happened before in New Hampshire history,” he said. “Where you have a Republican governor and a Democratic Legislature.”

Other states where Democrats added legislative chambers included Maine and Minnesota. They also gained control of New York’s state Senate, where a GOP-led coalition has held power.

The Republican State Leadership Committee appeared to be unfazed by the victories.

On Wednesday, the group crowed over seats its lawmakers had preserved, and gained in some places, saying key states President Trump won in 2016 have both legislative chambers under GOP control. These include Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

For legislatures in those places, as the committee put it, Trump’s “red wall” had held. (However, in Michigan and Wisconsin, key swing states in 2016, the governor’s seat was picked up by Democrats.)

In a Wednesday memo, the committee also touted a trifecta it had unlocked in Alaska, with gains in the state’s House and GOP candidate Mike Dunleavy winning the governor’s race.

The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that in 2010, Democrats lost 24 chambers and that, on-average, a dozen change party hands every two-year cycle, dating back to 1900.

Closer Look at Colorado and New Hampshire

The races in Colorado and New Hampshire provide a window into the dynamics in places where Democrats did make inroads.

In Colorado, Democratic momentum was driven, at least in part, by backlash against Trump, observers said. “I think it was a clear repudiation of Trumpism,” said Scott Wasserman, president of The Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning think-tank focused on policy in Colorado.

But Wasserman also said, in his view, the state candidates that did well on Tuesday ran on campaign platforms that included proposals for addressing economic insecurity.

He pointed to a hard fought race for Senate District 24, north of Denver, where Democratic candidate Faith Winter came under attack for her support as a state representative for a paid family leave proposal that had been debated in the state in recent years.

Ultimately Winter won the race with about 51.7 percent of the vote, compared to the 40.6 percent captured by her main rival, Republican Beth Martinez Humenik.

“Those progressive candidates,” Wasserman said, “they were just really unabashed in their call for better funding for education, and child care and these, like, bread and butter issues.”

Wasserman said that when he was knocking on doors during the campaign and talking to voters, he regularly heard from them that a top concern they had is education funding. “We have one of the worst-funded education systems in the country,” he added.

But while Colorado voters backed Democrats, they also rejected progressive-oriented ballot measures.

One would have imposed new restrictions on the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of oil and natural gas, two others involved tax increases for schools and transportation, and another involved a debt-financing package to help cover the cost of road projects.

Krause, with the libertarian-leaning think-tank, said a possible message here is: “We’re a blue state but we don’t want any more taxes or debt, so stay out of our wallets.”

The Independence Institute, he said, expects that with Democrats in power proposals will come up involving gun control. Krause also said at least one state lawmaker has entertained introducing the fracking measure that failed at the polls as a bill. He also anticipates transportation legislation could emerge, given that neither transportation ballot measure passed.

But if voters are averse to more taxes or more debt to pay for transportation, that could leave lawmakers in a tough spot. “That’s the Democrats’ problem now,” Krause said.

Not unlike Colorado, Galdieri credits Trump blowback for some of the enthusiasm that helped Democrats secure both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature. But he also says energy in the party leading up to the midterms led to strong candidate recruitment.

“I think you saw a whole lot of people who might not have otherwise ever run for office decide this was the year to do it,” he said, noting the field included younger candidates and women.

In a striking defeat, House Speaker Gene Chandler, a Republican, lost his bid for a 19th term to Democrat Anita Burroughs, who spent 20 years in marketing management and says she decided to run for office because of concerns she had over the outcome of the 2016 election.

Galdieri said Tuesday’s election shows that state races in New Hampshire can be competitive.

“I think for so long New Hampshire was just a basically one-party Republican state,” he said. “A lot of folks in the state, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that there’s a viable Democratic party and they can, and do, win.”

But the state can be “swingy,” he added, with voter attitudes drifting with national partisan tides.

This story has been updated to clarify that a Republican-led coalition held power in the New York state Senate.

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Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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