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After key midterm wins, the party will gain additional “trifectas” in 2023, holding both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. The change will unlock new policymaking possibilities.
The new year will give Democrats more power in state capitols than they have had since 1994.
That’s the last time the party had 17 “trifectas,” where they control both of the legislative chambers and the governor’s office. (Republicans will have 22 trifectas in 2023, about the same number as they have had since 2011.)
Democrats will reach their new peak after picking up complete control of four states in the 2022 midterm election: Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. They also lost a trifecta in one state: Nevada.
In nearly every case, Democrats and their allies are planning on pushing long-stalled priorities that Republicans blocked or limited.
- In Maryland, for example, Governor-elect Wes Moore has already said he will try to revive a light-rail line in Baltimore that his Republican predecessor, Larry Hogan, killed eight years ago.
- In Michigan, the heart of the automotive industry, labor unions hope that newly empowered Democrats in Lansing will repeal a “right-to-work” law that weakens their movement.
- In Massachusetts, Maura Healey, the incoming governor, named a cabinet-level climate advisor and wants to make climate-related technology a centerpiece of her economic development strategy. Outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed two major laws to mitigate the damages caused by greenhouse gases, but only after pushing for dozens of changes and even vetoing a prior proposal.
- In Minnesota, a lengthy list of Democratic priorities languished in the state Senate controlled by Republicans. Now that Democrats have a slim majority in the upper chamber, they could act on issues ranging from legalizing marijuana and codifying abortion rights to requiring family leave and reducing the price of prescription drugs.
Beyond the high-profile fights, though, the practical effect of Democrats taking control could vary widely by state.
Democrats haven’t had complete command of Michigan state government since 1984. That changed with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, winning re-election and Democrats ousting Republicans from legislative control in November.
“They are very small majorities [in Michigan], and it was something of a surprise,” said Matt Grossmann, a Michigan State University political science professor and director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. “There wasn’t a pre-built agenda that was advertised across campaigns or readied by Democratic interest groups.”
In fact, the stark change in party control of the Legislature reflects the fact that Democrats and Republicans were more evenly distributed in legislative districts in the 2022 elections than previously. An independent commission drew the maps used in 2020, while Republican lawmakers decided where the lines fell for the previous decade.
“Democrats got basically the same number of votes for the state Legislature that they had gotten in previous elections,” Grossmann said. “On the one hand, that’s the success of redistricting reform, especially from Democrats' perspective. But on the other hand, it means that the representatives know that there wasn’t some huge backlash to the previous policies. There was just a change in the lines to make them fair.”
Democrats narrowly took both chambers of the Legislature, but Whitmer beat her Republican opponent by 11 percentage points.
Whitmer had already been able to push forward a large part of her agenda in her first term, even though Republicans controlled the Legislature, Grossmann said.
A massive influx of money from the federal government made it easier to fund her initiatives, and she found a common cause with GOP leaders in crafting incentive packages to lure electric vehicle factories and battery manufacturing plants to the state.
Whitmer has also been an outspoken proponent of abortion rights, even before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade this spring. But Michigan voters largely took that issue out of the hands of lawmakers in November, when they approved an amendment to the state constitution to establish a right to reproductive freedom.
The governor promised during her first campaign to “fix the damn roads” and later proposed a 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax to help get it done. Republicans in the Legislature blocked that effort, although Whitmer found money to improve major state-owned roads. This time around she will not be pushing a gas tax hike and has not specified an alternative source of revenue she’d prefer to use for road upgrades.
With a budget surplus of roughly $6 billion, Whitmer and legislative Democrats could also seek to make tax changes that will help lower- and middle-income residents. That might mean pursuing expansions of the earned income tax credit, passing a child tax credit or ending taxes on pension income.
Democrats might increase revenue sharing with city governments. They also might try to scale back Republican-approved laws that let the state government take over financially troubled municipalities—like Detroit or Flint—and school districts. (Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy about a decade ago, still has to get state approval for its city budgets.)
While those reforms have long been a priority for Democrats, they may be less of an immediate concern because municipalities are currently in better fiscal shape than in prior years.
Democrats have enjoyed a solid power base in Annapolis for decades, which will be further strengthened when Moore is sworn in as governor. They’ve had veto-proof majorities for a century, and their legislative leaders have been formidable, as well.
“The key difference is that Moore is going to be more of a legislative partner versus the kind of roadblock they have now,” said Mileah Kromer, a Goucher College political science professor and author of “Blue-State Republican,” a book about Hogan. “For Hogan, the biggest check on the Democratic Legislature has always been vetoing bills or trying to use the bully pulpit to [lead the] opposition to Democratic initiatives.”
Moore, a military combat veteran, former nonprofit leader and author, won a crowded Democratic primary for governor after securing the endorsement of top legislative leaders, Kromer noted. That’s a sign that the Democrats will be on the same page with their legislative priorities, she said.
But there are several issues that will quickly come before Moore that he will have to contend with. Maryland voters approved a measure to legalize cannabis, and Moore will likely try to use that to promote racial equity, Kromer said.
While Moore tries to restart the Red Line project in Baltimore, he will also face a decision on what to do with Hogan’s efforts to expand the Beltway in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., using a public-private partnership.
The Legislature also approved a major overhaul to education spending, but it will be up to Moore and lawmakers in the coming years to make sure it is funded.
Meanwhile, crime remains a top concern for Maryland voters. Baltimore has had some of the highest murder rates in the country, but it has also gained notoriety for police abuses. Improving safety while keeping the police in check will be a challenge for Moore, who picked up the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police during his campaign.
Kromer, the Goucher professor, said Moore and legislative Democrats might be hesitant to go too far raising taxes or imposing burdens on businesses.
“If there’s one thing that the Hogan years probably have taught Democrats, it’s that you’ve got to take a moderate stance on economic issues. This is an electorate who was willing to vote for Republicans, twice even, if [they] avoid social issues and hold the line on economic ones,” she said.
Gov. Tim Walz saw much of his agenda thwarted in his first term by the Republicans who controlled the state Senate. Now that Democrats have a narrow edge in the chamber, he said recently, “the art of what is possible has expanded.”
If Democrats can keep their caucus on board, they can advance many initiatives that previously languished. Walz has pushed for higher spending on schools, more aggressive climate policies, paid parental leave, codifying abortion rights, and lowering the state’s taxes on Social Security income.
Progressive groups are also hopeful about the change in the political landscape.
“We expect really big things for the state,” said Elianne Farhat, the executive director of TakeAction Minnesota. That could include a public option for the state’s Medicaid program, a requirement to purchase 100% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources and an expansion of early childhood education.
The group has also been working on an effort to limit the prices of prescription drugs, an issue that has garnered bipartisan support in the past, Farhat said.
She said one-party control could simplify the politics of getting major initiatives passed. “Doing the right thing for people often gets caught up in partisan politics, and we can’t afford that. It’s doing too much damage,” she said. “The question in front of us is: are we going to make historic investments in our families, in our communities, in our schools and in our workers?”
When Healey becomes Massachusetts’ first woman governor, she will immediately be faced with one of the same challenges that Baker met during his early days in office: the Boston area’s beleaguered transit system. Healey will have to choose the next general manager for the system, and she’s indicated she wants the process to go quickly.
Healey is also interested in increasing housing and developing the state’s climate-related industries.
The incoming governor also said she wants to reduce taxes for lower- and middle-income residents. She campaigned on the promise of introducing an expanded child tax credit that would provide families $600 per child.