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Could Democrats Win Full Control Of More State Governments Than Republicans?

According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast,1 Democrats have a 72 percent chance of winning a federal government trifecta: that is, control of the presidency, Senate and House. But the 2020 election could also usher in a number of new trifectas on the state level.

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Single-party control of the governor’s office, state Senate and state House can enable that party to pass its agenda unencumbered, as Democrats showed after the 2018 midterms. The party used the six state-government trifectas it gained that year to pass major liberal legislation like funding full-day kindergarten in Colorado, raising the minimum wage in Illinois and setting ambitious renewable-energy goals in New Mexico. Democrats also broke up total Republican control of four other states, allowing them to take a hard line in negotiations with the GOP and bend legislation to their will.


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However, thanks to their dominance of state-level elections during the Obama administration, Republicans still enjoy more state-government trifectas than their rivals: They have full control of 21 state governments, while Democrats have full control of 15. Going by population, that means roughly 40 percent of Americans live in states under complete Republican control, while 37 percent live in Democratic trifecta states.

Which party controls state government?

Control of the governorship, state Senate and state House in all 50 states

State Governor State Senate State House Trifecta?
Alabama R R R
Alaska* R R D
Arizona R R R
Arkansas R R R
California D D D
Colorado D D D
Connecticut D D D
Delaware D D D
Florida R R R
Georgia R R R
Hawaii D D D
Idaho R R R
Illinois D D D
Indiana R R R
Iowa R R R
Kansas D R R
Kentucky D R R
Louisiana D R R
Maine D D D
Maryland R D D
Massachusetts R D D
Michigan D R R
Minnesota D R D
Mississippi R R R
Missouri R R R
Montana D R R
Nebraska† R R
Nevada D D D
New Hampshire R D D
New Jersey D D D
New Mexico D D D
New York D D D
North Carolina D R R
North Dakota R R R
Ohio R R R
Oklahoma R R R
Oregon D D D
Pennsylvania D R R
Rhode Island D D D
South Carolina R R R
South Dakota R R R
Tennessee R R R
Texas R R R
Utah R R R
Vermont R D D
Virginia D D D
Washington D D D
West Virginia R R R
Wisconsin D R R
Wyoming R R R

For the purposes of this table, House refers to a state’s lower legislative chamber.

*The Alaska state House has been controlled by a coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans.

†Nebraska has only one legislative chamber. It is nominally nonpartisan but in practice is controlled by Republicans.

Sources: National Conference of State Legislatures, National Governors Association

Now, with another Democratic wave election looming in 2020, the balance of power in state governments could finally flip. Thanks to the more than 5,800 state legislative seats and 11 governorships on the ballot on Nov. 3, control of at least 11 state governments is up for grabs in 2020. That means Democrats have at least eight chances to either break up a Republican trifecta or gain one of their own. But don’t count Republicans out either — the GOP also has quite a few opportunities of its own.

Where Democrats could break Republican trifectas

Of all the states where Republicans are in danger of losing their grip on state government, Texas would be the most consequential. Democrats would gain a seat at the table in not only policymaking that affects 27.9 million people, but also the drawing of almost 40 congressional districts in the upcoming redistricting process. (More on that next week.)

Just a few years ago, Republicans losing control of Austin would have been unthinkable — but in the 2018 midterms, Democrats flipped 12 seats in the Texas state House, meaning the party needs to net only nine more seats to take control of the chamber. And thanks to Texas’s recent leftward shift (especially in the suburbs), there’s a clear path for them to do it: In 2018, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke carried exactly nine state House seats that are still held by Republicans — showing that those districts are willing to vote Democratic in the right circumstances — and he came close in several more. In total, Democrats are targeting about 22 seats in the chamber, though they also need to defend the 12 they picked up in 2018.

Democrats could also take control of the Arizona state Legislature, although the trifecta is out of reach as Republican Gov. Doug Ducey still has two years left in his term. In her successful 2018 Senate campaign, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema carried three state Senate seats currently held by Republicans — exactly the number Democrats need to now flip in order to control the chamber. And Republicans currently have an even narrower advantage in the state House (31 seats to 29), prompting one Republican consultant to tell The Arizona Republic that he thought Democrats had a good chance to win it for the first time in 54 years.

Democrats could also end the Republican trifecta in Iowa by flipping the state House, which Republicans control 53 seats to 47. However, this will be more of a challenge, as Democrats must also defend 13 of their own members who sit in districts that voted for President Trump in 2016. Based on TV spending, Democrats are targeting at least 10 Republican-held seats, while Republicans hope to flip at least five Democratic-held ones.

Finally, Democrats also have an outside shot at ending total Republican control of Missouri state government if Democrat and state Auditor Nicole Galloway defeats Republican incumbent Mike Parson in the governor’s race. However, this is probably a long shot, as Parson has led handily in most polls.

Where Democrats could take full control

Democrats already capitalized on their most realistic trifecta opportunities in 2018, but there are still a few states left where the party could take full control of government. The most obvious is Minnesota, where the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lacks control of only the state Senate. The DFL has six Republican-held seats in its sights, although it needs to net just two to win a majority. Conveniently enough, Republicans currently represent two suburban Twin Cities districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and are only getting more Democratic with time. However, Republicans have plenty of ways to stop a DFL trifecta even if they lose those two seats. The GOP is eyeing five DFL-held Senate seats and would love to flip the state House as well, although the math — the DFL has a 16-seat advantage in the lower chamber — makes the latter more unlikely.

If Democrats are really lucky, they could also give Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf a Democratic legislature to work with in Pennsylvania. Despite maps that were drawn to favor Republicans, Democrats steamrolled Republicans in metro Philadelphia in 2018, cutting their deficit to four seats in the state Senate and nine seats in the state House. Of course, the remaining competitive seats are the heaviest lifts for Democrats, although they do have around 15 pickup opportunities in the House (though Republicans have 12 of their own). And in the Senate, Democrats have no margin for error on their path to a majority: They must flip all four vulnerable Republican-held seats while defending two seats around Pittsburgh. It’s a tall order, but not impossible given that Biden is leading by an average of 7 points in Pennsylvania.

Where Republicans could take full control

Although their opportunities come in much less populous states, Republicans could also gain power from the 2020 election. For example, Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte is leading in polls for Montana governor, an open seat being vacated by Democrat Steve Bullock. And with both chambers of the Montana state Legislature firmly in Republican hands, a Gianforte win would produce another Republican trifecta.

Republicans could also take full control of Alaska state government simply by standing pat in the state House. (They already control the governorship and state Senate.) For the last two years, the House has been controlled by a coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans despite Republicans technically occupying 23 of the chamber’s 40 seats. However, with the defeat of two of those moderate Republicans in this year’s primaries and the defection of at least two others, Republicans appear to have the numbers to form a state House majority next year — even if no seats switch parties in the election.


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Where Republicans could break a Democratic trifecta

On the other hand, Republicans have only one realistic chance of ending a Democratic trifecta: by flipping either Maine’s state Senate or state House. But although national handicappers and state experts disagree on which chamber is more endangered, all parties agree that Democrats have the upper hand in both. A recent Bangor Daily News/Digital Research poll found that Democrats led Republicans, 51 percent to 44 percent, on the generic legislative ballot, and outside Democratic groups have spent nearly four times as much as Republican ones.

Where either party could take full control

Finally, there are two states where all three components of a trifecta are competitive in 2020, meaning either party could emerge with total control of government. However, the most likely outcome in both may be a split decision.

In North Carolina, Republican legislators drew themselves very safe districts for a majority of the decade, but court-ordered redistricting has opened the door for Democrats to net the five seats they need in the state Senate and the six seats they need in the state House. However, the new maps still lean Republican overall: The tipping-point district went for Trump by 10 points in the state Senate and by 12 points in the state House. And Republicans could still seize the trifecta by defeating Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, but virtually every poll has shown the incumbent ahead, usually by double digits.

The parties’ positions are flipped in New Hampshire, where Republican Chris Sununu sits in the governor’s office and Democrats currently control both chambers of the legislature. Although New Hampshire is likely to go blue on the presidential level, Sununu is unlikely to lose his bid for a third term. That leaves Republicans fighting to flip the three seats they need in the state Senate and 44 seats they need in the House. That second part might sound impossible — and it will definitely be a challenge — but New Hampshire’s oddly drawn, 400-member state House is known for swinging wildly back and forth between the parties depending on the mood of the electorate.2

One last competitive chamber

Finally, one state without a trifecta in play deserves an honorable mention. With neither Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer nor the Republican-held state Senate up for election in 2020, Michigan is guaranteed to still have divided government for the next two years. However, the Michigan state House is one of the most competitive legislative chambers in the country this year. Republicans hold just a 58-52 majority and are defending four seats Whitmer carried in 2018 — three of which are open seats due to term limits. If Democrats flip the chamber, it would be the culmination of a decade-long Democratic effort: According to Daily Kos Elections, Michigan Democrats won the state House popular vote in 2012, 2014 and 2018, yet fell short of the majority every time.

Footnotes

  1. Deluxe version, as of 5:45 p.m. on Oct. 19.

  2. With so few voters in each district, just a handful of voters need to change their minds in order to flip one. And many New Hampshire state House districts are represented by multiple representatives, so a shift in the partisanship of just one district could flip multiple seats.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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