Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Legislators Navigate Election 2016



Donkey and elephant in car


The effect this year’s wild race for the White House will have on state legislative contests is difficult to predict.

By Daniel Diorio and Tim Storey

POST-ELECTION ANALYSIS: How did the races and the many ballot questions affect the legislative landscape? Read our elections wrap-up here.


For the more than 10,000 candidates seeking state legislative seats this year, observing the volatile race for the White House may feel a bit like watching an investment rise and fall in the stock market. Investors have relatively little control over how an individual stock performs, yet its performance can have a huge effect on their financial futures.

Likewise, legislators have little control over who becomes their party’s presidential nominee yet the results can have a profound effect on their political futures.

Presidential candidates continue to influence voters’ decisions all the way down the ticket. Since 1900, in 21 of the previous 29 presidential years, the party winning the White House has also gained seats in state legislatures. This “coattail effect” averages a gain of 129 legislative seats.

The campaign taking the White House typically succeeds because of its superior strategy, keen organization and ability to generate the most enthusiasm and commitment from voters. And it most certainly knows how to win the get-out-the-vote effort. But with this year’s election unfolding like no other in modern history, the results are a bit more unpredictable.

“Citizens have the choice between the two most unpopular candidates ever,” veteran journalist Mara Liasson told lawmakers at NCSL’s Legislative Summit in August. How will that affect their voting?

The success of Donald Trump in winning the GOP nomination surprised everyone save his most ardent supporters. His unorthodox campaign has contrasted starkly with that of Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton, who has appeared overly cautious, as if taking her cue straight from a “How to Run a Campaign” textbook.

The voters’ choice of who serves as the next president—whether Republican or Democrat—will play a role in determining the victors of the state races as well, especially given that recent studies show an upswing in straight-ticket voting. But exactly how much influence this year’s presidential nominees will have is a big unknown.

High Stakes for States

Even though the presidential race receives all the attention, the fact is, who wins control of legislatures and governorships will have a greater direct impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans than who occupies the White House and the halls of Congress.

State legislative elections are as important as ever. On Election Day, voters will determine the winners of 5,917 seats in 86 chambers in 44 states. That’s more than 80 percent of the total 7,383 legislative seats nationwide.

Each party is working hard to ensure the presidential election isn’t the only news to report on the morning of Nov. 9.


Note: As of April 2016, Republications control 30 legislatures; Democrats control 12; seven legislatures are split, and one is unicameral nonpartisan.


How High Can the GOP Go?

Republicans’ success in the last three legislative election cycles makes it difficult for them to gain much more. With majorities in so many chambers, they will be playing more defense than offense this year.

The GOP has dominated control of state legislatures since 2010, when Democrats lost control of a whopping 24 legislative chambers. That was extraordinary, given that since 1900, only 12 chambers typically have switched control every two years. Two years later, Democrats retook control of eight chambers, but lost another five. Republicans roared right back in 2014, taking 11 more chambers, including both of them in West Virginia for the first time in 83 years.

Not counting the Nebraska Legislature, which is unicameral and nonpartisan, Republicans currently hold more seats than they have since 1920—over 4,100 of 7,383. The GOP has majorities in 67 of the country’s 98 partisan chambers. That’s more than at any time in the party’s history. And in 30 states, Republicans control both chambers.

Democrats control 31 chambers, hold both chambers in 12 states and split control in seven states. In addition, Republicans could actually claim the New York Senate. It consists of 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans, but a coalition that includes only a couple of Democrats controls the chamber, with Republican John Flanagan serving as president pro tempore and majority leader.

Much of the GOP dominance can be attributed to a slow but steady shift made in Southern states during the last 25 years. For decades in the last century, Democrats held overwhelming majorities in the South, with some legislatures having literally no Republicans. By 2008, Republicans had gained 46 percent of the Southern seats; today they hold 63 percent. Republicans control both legislative chambers in every Southern state save one. In the Kentucky House, Democrats hold a slim 53-47 majority and are certain to face a tough challenge once again.

Some chambers with large majorities are simply beyond the reach of the minority party this year. Still, several of this year’s legislative races will be competitive. In addition to the Kentucky House, another 17 legislative chambers—11 senates and six houses—are close enough in numbers to qualify as true battlegrounds.

On the Senate Side

Senate races in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New York, Washington and West Virginia are being watched closely, as half the seats are up for election and a slim one- or two-seat difference exists in all of them.

 In five other states—Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin—GOP senate majorities are bigger but still vulnerable. In Arizona, Republicans are trying to hold on to a three-seat lead, while in New Mexico the Democrats are trying to do the same thing.

On the House Side

Democrats have slim leads to defend in the Colorado, Kentucky and Washington house chambers.

Republicans are defending majorities in Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico, where polls show Clinton currently leading the race for the White House.

The Minnesota and New Hampshire houses have been the nation’s most competitive chambers over the last 10 years, with party control in both states changing in four of the past five elections.

It All Hinges on Turnout

The biggest question this year is, Who will turn out to vote?

Will Latino voters show up in greater numbers? How will they vote? What about women, or whites without college degrees? Will the younger generation show up at all?

It’s just too early to know the answers, says University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald, the nation’s leading expert on voter turnout, adding that a perceived blowout in the presidential race as Election Day approaches also could affect turnout, perhaps dramatically.

One trend is irrefutable: African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are playing a larger role in deciding the outcome of U.S. elections. In 1972, more than 90 percent of voters were white; this year, it is widely expected that, for the first time, that portion will be less than 70 percent.

Whether it will be a close race or a blowout is anyone’s guess, as almost daily something occurs that reinforces the idea that no one knows how this pair of presidential candidates themselves will shape voter participation.

History in the Making?

With Republicans seeking to defend their control of a record-high number of legislatures and Democrats looking to make gains, the election could be “one for the ages,” says Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a columnist for the National Journal. Throw in the unusual presidential contest, and it could redefine the parties—and American politics—for a generation, he says.

As the two parties become increasingly ideological, they are losing the moderates who helped keep them fairly “centered,” Cook says. “Add in economic anxiety, wages not keeping up, segments of Americans under real financial stress fearing disappointing futures, then throw in some really raw and emotional issues like immigration and, finally, an insurrection among Republicans,” and what do you get? “Many folks becoming vehemently anti-establishment.”

“I think there are big things going on in American politics that transcend the quirky personalities running for president this year,” Cook says.

Daniel Diorio is an NCSL elections policy specialist; Tim Storey is NCSL’s director of state services.


Sidebar: Where the Battles Are

Party control is at stake in these battleground chambers

Senate Races  
Arizona 18 R, 12 D
Colorado  18 R, 17 D
Iowa 26 D, 24 R
Maine 20 R, 15 D
Nevada 11 R, 10 D
New Hampshire 14 R, 10 D
New Mexico 24 D, 18 R
New York 32 D, 31 R
Washington 25 R, 24 D
West Virginia 18 R, 16 D
Wisconsin 19 R, 14 D
House Races  
Colorado 34 D, 31 R
Kentucky 53 D, 47 R
Minnesota 73 R, 61 D
Nevada  25 R, 17 D
New Hampshire  239 R, 160 D
New Mexico 37 R, 33 D
Washington 50 D, 48 R

Source: NCSL, September 2016


Who's Missing?

Not in the race this year are legislators in Alabama and Maryland, who were elected in 2014 and serve four-year terms; Michigan senators; and all lawmakers in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia, whose states hold legislative elections in odd-numbered years.

All told, about 20 percent of state lawmakers are on the sidelines for this election.


GOP Governors in Charge

Republicans control 31 governorships nationwide. They hold the governorship and both legislative chambers in 22 states, while Democrats have full control in eight states. The parties split control in 19 states.

There are 12 gubernatorial races this year. Democrats are defending seats in eight of them, Republicans in four. Half the races appear to be toss-ups—four in states held by Democrats, two in Republican states. With just a handful of contests, “neither party is likely to make significant gains or sustain big losses,” says Charlie Cook, National Journal columnist and founder of The Cook Political Report.


Elections 2016: By the Numbers


7,383 Number of state legislators

80 percent Portion of state legislative seats up for election

18 Chambers that could switch party control 

68 percent vs. 56 percent Portion of state legislative chambers versus seats under Republican control

82.7 percent Portion of races with an incumbent running for re-election

12 Number of gubernatorial races

Sources: NCSL, Ballotpedia

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources