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Democrats could take control in a handful of states, including North Carolina and Texas. But it won't be easy.
A half-dozen chambers in state legislatures could flip to Democratic control after next week’s election, giving the party a role in redrawing the electoral boundaries that will help determine control of both Congress and state governments for the next decade.
“Most of the legislators who are elected on Tuesday will have a great say over how redistricting takes place in the next two years,” said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. “Most states are not at issue—that is, most states lean heavily one way or the other, and the legislature is unlikely to switch hands—but there are a few places that are possibly going to switch party control, and that comes at a particularly important time.”
Since 2010, Republicans have controlled a majority of state legislatures, and because most states let their lawmakers draw the electoral maps, that advantage has given them outsized control over the boundaries that help determine which party remains in power. Today, Republicans control 59 of the 98 chambers that have partisan control—or 60%. They also have trifectas—controlling both legislative chambers and the governor’s office—in 21 states, compared to 15 for Democrats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Since 1900, an average of 12 chambers have flipped every two-year election cycle, but that number has gone down over time, said Carl Klarner, a political consultant who provides quantitative data and forecasts for state legislative races. For example, in 2018, a year when Democrats took over the U.S. House of Representatives, only six state chambers changed hands.
“Chambers are becoming more and more either safely Republican or Democrat,” he said. “If I was going to bet, I’d say the Democrats will pick up maybe five total.”
This year, Republicans' prospectives for turning a legislative chamber are far more limited, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, such as winning full control of the House in Alaska, where a coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans are currently in power. Perhaps another opportunity would be in New Hampshire, where Republicans need to flip three seats to turn the Senate.
The likelihood of a chamber flipping depends on a host of factors outside the candidates running for office, including the political affiliation of the state’s governor, the party of the president of the United States, and the percentage by which each party won or lost the individual seats on the ballot, Klarner said. This year, the race between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump, and how each perform in particular states, could also influence races down the ballot.
In North Carolina, for example, Democrats need to gain five seats to flip the Senate and six seats to flip the House. Every seat in the legislature is up for re-election, Klarner said, including five Republican-held Senate seats whose Democratic challengers received at least 46% of the vote in the last election. That matters, he noted, because data indicates that seats won by a margin of less than 10% of the vote flip about a quarter of the time.
“It gives you an idea of how possible it is for the Dems to pick up a seat,” he said. “Reaching down to 46%, in terms of these seats, is totally doable.”
The percentages are similar in the North Carolina House—there are six Republican-held seats where Democratic challengers received at least 47% of the vote—so there’s a chance both could flip. But there are other factors to consider, including the presence of incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, on the ballot (the incumbent’s party tends to suffer a bit in down-ballot races, Klarner said) and legislative districts that are extensively gerrymandered toward Republicans.
Court-ordered redistricting two years ago leveled that playing field a bit, but the new maps still favor the GOP, meaning it’s uphill battle for Democrats to win seats.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Democrats could take control of at least one of those chambers,” Squire said. “But the lines are still stacked against them.”
The situation is similar in Wisconsin, where Democrats would need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate and 14 to gain control of the Assembly. The districts there also favor Republicans, Squire said, to the extent that “it would be hard for the Democrats, even if they get a sort of landslide election, to take control of the legislature just because of the way the lines are drawn.”
Other interesting states include Minnesota, where Democrats need two seats to flip the Senate and create a trifecta, and Texas, where they would need to gain a total of 13 seats—four in the Senate and nine in the House—to take control of the legislature. The demographics there—a growing Hispanic population and increasing numbers of younger voters—favor Democrats, though a total flip is a long shot, Squire said.
“In 2018, they picked up a lot more seats in the legislature than I think most folks had anticipated, and it puts them within reach this time—but it’s a stretch,” he said. “But they could pick up more seats, in urban areas and in the suburbs as well.”
The outcomes of state legislative races nationwide will hinge on turnout, how many voters turn in straight-party ballots, and what Klarner called “weird biases” that could be drawn out by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“For example, you could have people with higher education levels who happen to be Republicans and are better able to navigate voting by mail,” he said. “Turnout is up for early voting and mail-in voting, but we just don’t know if overall turnout is going to be higher.”
Contests in many states may also be decided by suburban voters, Squire said, noting they tend to favor more moderate candidates.
“In a lot of these states, it’s the suburbs that will determine whether something flips or not,” he said. “Those are people who are more moderate Republicans who may be uncomfortable with the hard-right turn that a lot of the Republican candidates have taken.”
With myriad competing factors and the massive uncertainty around a pandemic election, Squire said, it’s likely that only a handful of chambers will flip control.
“My guess is that it will probably be smaller than you might anticipate,” he said. “If you get six chambers that switch hands, that would be a big number. Ten would be huge. But I think most will stay pretty much where they are.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.
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