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When One Party Controls State Government


Nathaniel Rakich: In November 2022, Democrats in four states achieved trifectas. No, they didn’t get lucky down at the track — although they did win a horse race of a different sort: They won the three elections that determine control of state government. And this kind of trifecta is even more valuable than a winning ticket: It gives political parties the chance to mold their state into a conservative or liberal paradise. So, what’s the deal with state-government trifectas?

A state-government trifecta is when the same party controls the governorship, state Senate and state House in a given state. And because those are the three bodies that approve new legislation in a state, a trifecta gives a party full control over the governing process — the unfettered ability to pass any laws it wants.

Until around 2010, though, trifectas didn’t get a lot of attention. Only around half of states had them, and even where they existed, parties often had enough internal disagreements that they couldn’t pass super transformative legislation. But that year, a more ideologically coherent Republican Party won 11 new state-government trifectas, and it quickly put them to use.

Republicans in states like Texas and Tennessee made it harder to vote by passing voter-ID laws. Republicans in states like Michigan and Wisconsin cracked down on labor unions by making it harder to collectively bargain or allowing workers to opt out of union dues. And Republicans in states like Kansas and Oklahoma moved to restrict abortion by banning it after 20 weeks or barring private insurance plans from covering it.

But trifectas have been a powerful tool for Democrats too. In the 2017 and 2018 elections, the party gained eight new trifectas, and they began ushering in new liberal policies. Colorado funded universal full-day kindergarten. Illinois became the first state to eliminate cash bail. Several states raised the minimum wage.

As state politics have become nationalized, states are increasingly picking the same party to fill every role in government — which means the number of trifectas has increased. Today, 39 of the 50 states have one — 22 Republican, 17 Democratic. The parties have never had such wide leeway to experiment with extremely conservative or liberal policies. This year alone, states are considering using public funds to pay for private schools, loosening third-trimester abortion bans, banning public drag shows and legalizing psychedelic mushrooms.

Not all of these things will pass, but it’s clear that Republicans and Democrats are trying their hardest to transform the states they control into bastions of conservative and liberal governance. And as a result, your day-to-day life can feel very different depending on whether you live in a red or a blue state. We’re one country, but increasingly, we experience two different Americas.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.


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