The NCSL Blog


By John Mahoney

You may have heard that 6,066 state legislative seats (82 percent of all seats) are up for grabs in 46 states on Nov. 6.

StateVote 2018 logoIf that’s the sort of thing that gets your blood pumping, the good folks at NCSL have got you covered.

We spent an unreasonable amount of time over the past few months collecting data on who’s running in state legislative races. Now that we’ve taken a moment to make some sense of it all, we’re ready to share some insights, even if it’s just for self-therapeutic purposes.

By the numbers:

  • 10,809 candidates are running in 6,069 races, which comes out to about 1.8 candidates per race.
  • In 2016, 36 percent of races were unopposed, this year that number has dropped significantly to around 28 percent.
  • A record number of women are running—3,564—a historically high number and 28 percent more than in 2016.
  • Party breakdown: 4,741 candidates are Republicans, 5,349 are Democrats and 719 are independents or members of minor parties (for more on independent and third-party legislators check out this piece from a recent issue of State Legislatures magazine).
  • Pre-election turnover is at 21 percent, which is considerably higher than we’ve seen in recent history.

In plain English:

  • The obvious takeaway here is that we are expecting more competitive and diverse races with Democrats nationwide trying to make a dent in the Republicans’ historic control of the states. While the average number of candidates per race is still south of two, the near 10 percent drop in the number of unopposed races indicates that challengers are stepping up in districts in which incumbents usually have won their races before the leaves even changed colors. 
  • Women are showing up in force this November, and not just at the ballot box. This past year, a historically high 25 percent of legislators were women. Considering the record number of women running this year, we are almost certainly looking at a new record in 2019.
  • While we don’t yet have great data on the number of minorities running, we should expect that the new crop of legislators who show up in the capitols across the country come January is going to be more diverse and representative of the general population than ever.
  • The 21 percent pre-election turnover rate may not leap off the page at you as it does to us, but it is certainly worth taking a second to examine. Historically, turnover rates tend to be in the high teens—and that’s post-election. At 21 percent pre-election, and likely a few points higher after everything is wrapped up on Election Day, we are potentially facing a turnover rate 5-plus percent higher than usual. That may not seem like a huge number, but when we are talking about 7,000-plus legislators, 5 percent mean hundreds of additional first-time legislators in chambers across the country come the new year. We’re not entirely sure if this high a pre-election turnover rate will be unprecedented, but it certainly indicates we are seeing more incumbents termed out, stepping aside or being defeated in primaries than we have in recent memory. Whether you think this is for better or worse, there’s no questioning the huge effect a turnover rate likely to be in the mid 20s will have on the nation's legislatures.

Putting this all together means these elections will not be run-of-the-mill—if there ever are such things! With a more diverse candidate pool, greater competitiveness and fewer incumbents on the Nov. 6 ballot, we have a good feeling there will be a noticeable difference in the way legislatures will look in 2019.

We’ll know for sure after the polls have closed and the calculations are complete. Until then, stay tuned to this blog, in addition to the NCSL 2018 StateVote page, as we try to make sense of what looks to be a historic year in state legislative elections.

John Mahoney is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.