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The States Where Democrats Or Republicans Could Seize Full Control Of Government

A state-government trifecta — when the state’s governor, Senate and House are all controlled by the same party — can mean a lot to a party’s legislative priorities. In that situation, policies that remain pipe dreams at the national level — right-to-work laws, a higher minimum wage, abortion restrictions, gun-control legislation — can become reality. What’s more, in all but a handful of states, the governor and state legislature also hold the keys to congressional redistricting, so the 2018 election could determine who gets to draw U.S. House maps across the country after the 2020 census. But Democrats are at a low-water mark at the state level: Republicans have full control of 26 state governments; Democrats have only eight.

Control of state government by party

† Connecticut’s Democratic lieutenant governor breaks ties in the state Senate.

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

Sources: Ballotpedia, National Conference of State Legislatures

But with 36 governorships and more than 6,000 state-legislative seats (across 87 different chambers) on the ballot this year, that could change in a big way after Nov. 6. Republicans’ overexposure in governorships and legislatures alike, plus the Democratic-leaning national environment, could give Democrats ample opportunity to not only break up existing Republican trifectas, but also secure trifectas of their own.

So I set out to determine which state governments were most likely to change hands in 2018. To do so, I spent an unhealthy amount of time poring over historical and current state-legislative composition data and past election results.1 I also looked at what other experts were saying about how state legislatures could be affected by the 2018 elections.2 After all that digging, I came up with the following list:

Where Democrats could take total control

Let’s start with the states where Democrats could gain full control over policymaking. In Colorado, Democrats don’t look like they’re going to lose either the governor’s office or state House, so they just need to flip two seats in the state Senate (18-16 Republican) to take full control. According to the Colorado Sun, the two parties are already on pace to spend $7.5 million in just five competitive Senate districts. Likewise, the state Senate is Democrats’ only missing piece in New York; there are actually 32 Democrats in the chamber to 31 Republicans, but Democrat Simcha Felder caucuses with Republicans to give the GOP the majority. With several Republican-held seats in danger, however, Democrats will probably capture a majority wide enough to withstand any potential party-switching.

The Republican trifecta in Michigan is also at risk of going full blue. The median seat (going by how it voted in the 2016 and 2012 presidential elections) in both chambers of the legislature is quite Republican, according to Daily Kos Elections, but with Democrat Gretchen Whitmer doing well in the gubernatorial race, the party is optimistic about picking up the necessary 10 state House seats on her coattails. The state Senate is more daunting at 27-10 Republican, but 11 Republicans are term-limited out of competitive seats, giving Democrats a golden opportunity. In Maine, which currently has divided government, the governorship, state Senate and state House could all go either way, but in this environment, the Democratic way is more likely.

It’s maybe a stretch to suggest that Democrats could assume total control of Florida, where Republicans have held a trifecta since 1999.3 But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum has led in every poll, and the 23-16 Republican majority in the state Senate is definitely threatened. Democrats face an uphill battle in the state House (they’d need to pick up 20 seats), but according to Daily Kos Elections, President Trump won the chamber’s median district by just 3 points. In my estimation, that makes the chamber more competitive than most people give it credit for; if voter anger at Trump is strong enough, it could be the surprise Democratic flip of the night.

Finally, competitive gubernatorial races give Democrats a good shot at achieving trifectas in three other states — Illinois, Nevada and New Mexico. The party already has safe majorities in all three legislatures.

Where Democrats could break a Republican trifecta

There are also several states where Democrats could end total Republican control of state government, even if they can’t win it all for themselves.

Perhaps Democrats’ best bet at picking up a state legislature is in New Hampshire, whose massive state House can swing pretty wildly depending on the national environment: It went from Republican control (298-102) after 2010, to Democratic control (222-178) after 2012 and then back to Republican control (239-160) after 2014; it remains in GOP hands today.4 This year, Democrats need to gain 28 seats in the House and three in the state Senate to wrest both chambers from Republicans. But that’s probably the best Democrats can do: Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is likely to win re-election.

In Arizona, it’s less likely that Democrats will take full control of the legislature — Republicans’ 35-25 majority in the state House appear to be safe, but the GOP could lose its narrow 17-13 majority in the state Senate. Democrats could also break up Republican control in Georgia, Kansas, Ohio and Oklahoma by winning those states’ governorships; I would be surprised if Republicans lost control of any of the legislative chambers in those states, however.

In Wisconsin and Iowa, Democrats’ best shot at busting the GOP monopoly is also through the governors’ offices, but one state-legislative chamber could fall in each state, too. In Wisconsin, it’s the state Senate, where Republicans have only a three-seat majority but have a wide financial and geographic advantage; in Iowa, it’s the state House, which Republicans control 58-41. One sign that a “blue wave” might hit these states especially hard? Democrats far exceeded expectations in state-legislative special elections this cycle.

Where Republicans could gain

Republicans are not without pickup opportunities. The GOP already has a 21-17 edge in the Alaska state House, but three of those Republicans (plus two independents) have formed a coalition with Democrats to control the chamber. However, they will be fighting for re-election on Republican-leaning turf. Republican Mike Dunleavy also seems poised to seize the governor’s chair, which would complete the trifecta if Republicans are successful in grabbing control of the House. In Connecticut, outgoing Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s unpopularity threatens his party’s full control of the state. The currently 18-18 state Senate — Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman is the tie-breaking vote — could go for either party; so could the gubernatorial race. If Republicans manage to overcome Democrats’ 80-71 majority in the state House, they could gain full control. And even in tiny, blue Delaware, Democrats’ one-seat majority in the state Senate will keep the party on its toes.

Close gubernatorial elections in Rhode Island and Oregon also threaten Democrats’ grip on those states, although both legislatures seem like safe bets for Democrats. And in Minnesota, Republicans could complete a trifecta with a Jeff Johnson win in the gubernatorial race, but only if they successfully hold off Democrats in the state House. The GOP has a 77-56 majority there, but 12 Republicans sit in suburban seats won by Hillary Clinton, the kind of district where Democrats are favored in FiveThirtyEight’s U.S. House forecast. In a bit of bonus state-legislative fun, Minnesota will also host a special election to decide control of the tied (33-33) state Senate, but it’s a very Republican district, according to Daily Kos. If Democrats do manage to win it, though, Minnesota could sneak yet another Democratic trifecta in through the back door.



Footnotes

  1. From the National Conference of State Legislatures and Daily Kos Elections, respectively.

  2. Shoutout to Ballotpedia and Governing magazine.

  3. Except, technically, for a brief period when GOP Gov. Charlie Crist became an independent.

  4. Many New Hampshire state House districts are represented by multiple representatives. But such a large legislature in a small state means that only a few votes are cast for each seat, making it easier for just a handful of swing voters to change an election result.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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