Moving Ahead: What Election 2016 Meant for State Legislatures



Donkey and elephant in car


A long, brutal campaign yielded surprises, but not in most legislatures.

By Tim Storey

After a tumultuous and bitter presidential campaign, with two of the most disliked candidates in recent history, voters sent a powerful message to politicians: Major change must come to Washington. And, they were willing to give Donald Trump, who often declared it was time to “drain the swamp,” the chance to do just that. Their message to state legislatures, however, was more like: Stay the course!

Clearly, many voters were fed up with politics, mad at politicians and disgusted with the campaign, which one focus group described as “garbage,” says Amy Walter, national editor for The Cook Political Report and frequent panelist for Fox, PBS and NBC.

But how wide and how deep that anger goes is unclear. Voters left the overall partisan landscape in state legislatures relatively unchanged. Only eight chambers shifted party control—well below the average flip of 12 per election cycle. And the turnover rate of legislative seats was just about average, at 25 percent. Furthermore, party control of states, legislatures, chambers and seats hardly moved.

In sum, it was a low-change, almost average election in the states.

That was undoubtedly a relief for GOP legislative leaders who only weeks before Election Day feared major losses. States have been under historically high GOP dominance for the past two years and, despite playing mostly defense throughout the long campaign season, the party will remain in the driver’s seat of state policymaking for at least two more years. Republicans even nudged up the tally of legislatures under their complete control from 30 to 32—the most in party history. And now they have a completely Republican government in Washington to work with as well.


Control of Legislative Chambers


Before the election, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers in 30 states, Democrats controlled both chambers in 12 states and control was split in seven states.


Republicans now control both legislative chambers in 32 states, while Democrats control both in 13 states. Control is split in only three states, the lowest number in almost 70 years. New York election results were undecided as of Nov. 14.

Source for maps: NCSL rsearch

The Numbers, Please

Even though Trump claimed a solid win in the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton appears to have narrowly edged him in the popular vote tally. It was a very, very close election at the top of the ticket. Reflecting that, Trump had meager coattails in legislative races. Republicans netted about 40 seats nationwide, marking the second smallest gain in legislatures by a winning president’s party since 1900. It should be noted that on eight occasions, presidential candidates had no proverbial coattails and lost legislative seats despite winning the White House.

At press time, the partisan control of the New York Senate was undetermined, because the race between John Brooks (D) and incumbent Michael Venditto (R) was too close to call and a recount looked inevitable. Excluding that district, Democrats and Republicans each won 31 seats in the chamber. The partisan tallies below do not reflect the Empire State Senate, though most observers of Albany politics expect that the chamber will continue to be led by a coalition of Republicans and a splinter group of Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference.

When sessions open in 2017, Republicans will control both legislative chambers in 32 states, and Democrats will control both chambers in 13 states. The number of divided legislatures fell to three, marking the lowest number of split legislatures since 1944.

All told, that’s 48 states because of New York’s undecided race and Nebraska’s nonpartisan, single-chamber legislature. Republicans now have the majority in 66 chambers, Democrats in 30 and the Connecticut Senate is tied at 18-18. Legislative seat totals tell the same story.  When sessions gavel in, more than 4,160 Republican legislators will take the oath of office, holding 57.1 percent of all seats. That’s the most the party has held since the 1920 election.

Michael Steele, former head of the Republican National Committee, believes it’s important for his party to keep winning in the states. “You can only sustain national success from the bottom,” he says. “Until 2010, the emphasis was always the other way around.”

Under New Management

Despite GOP gains, Democrats had a few bright spots in the elections this year, especially in southwestern states where strong Latino turnout helped them capture three chambers. In Nevada, both chambers moved to the Democrats’ column. Silver State Democrats picked up one seat in the Senate to take the majority back, 11-10. In the Assembly, Democrats gained a 27-15 majority.

For the first time in Nevada’s history, both bodies of the Legislature will be led by African-Americans. Senator Aaron Ford was chosen by his peers to be the new majority leader, and the Assembly selected Jason Frierson as the new speaker.

In neighboring New Mexico, Democrats won back the House, which they lost in 2014, and will now control the body 38-32.

It had been far longer than two years since Republicans had controlled the Kentucky House. Democrats have run the Bluegrass State House for the past 94 years. But not anymore. Trump did extremely well in Kentucky, helping Republicans gain a sizable majority in the House—64 of 100 seats. The new House speaker will be Jeff Hoover.

Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, described the GOP gains in Kentucky as a big prize for the party, calling it “the culmination of what we’ve seen growing in the states since at least 2010.” It was clear to him that voters wanted “change and solutions from their state capitols, where they supported conservative leadership.”

With their victory in the Kentucky House, Republicans finalized a 26-year takeover of Southern legislatures. All 30 legislative chambers in the South are now in GOP hands, a complete reversal from 1992, when every chamber in the South was under Democratic control. Nearly two-thirds of all state legislators in the South belong to the Republican party.

Republicans also took over the Iowa Senate for the first time in a decade, making it one of the 24 states where the party now controls all of state government. Iowa was another state where Trump performed well, and is the state with the highest percentage of working-class white voters who were key to the president-elect’s success.

Among the bigger surprises in the election was the flip of the Minnesota Senate. Republicans will have a narrow 34-33 advantage when the chamber convenes. The Minnesota Senate has become one of the most competitive chambers in the nation in recent years, changing hands in three of the last four elections.

Another stunner occurred in Connecticut, where Republicans garnered an 18-18 tie in the Senate, which has been controlled by Democrats since 1996. Democrats look to have the advantage in the chamber because tie votes are broken by the lieutenant governor, a Democrat.

The Delaware Senate will also be tied, but not until a vacancy occurs in early January when Senator Bethany Hall-Long (D) must resign to become the First State’s new lieutenant governor. At that point, the chamber will be tied 10-10 until a special election is held within 45 days.

In Washington, Democrats look like they have control of the Senate 25-24. But Senator Tim Sheldon (D) plans to side once again with Republicans in a coalition to run the body. NCSL counts the state as Democratic because there is a numeric majority of Democrats, but in actuality it is divided because of the coalition.

In Alaska, Democrats will benefit from a coalition to lead the House despite having only 17 seats in the 40-member chamber. Two Republicans and two independents joined forces with the minority party to elect Representative Bryce Edgmon (D) as the new speaker.

Although it was a disappointing year for the Democratic Party, Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, was pleased with the developments in Alaska and with other party gains in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Texas and Wyoming. “These down-ballot victories were a bright spot for Democrats in the 2016 elections,” she says.

The brightest spot for the party may be Hawaii. Democrats now hold every seat in the Senate. It has been decades since either party was completely absent from a legislative chamber in the U.S.

Governors, Too

The election did not offer much excitement in gubernatorial races. Only 12 seats were at stake nationwide and at least half of them were safe for incumbents or their parties. Still, it was a good night for Republicans.

Incumbent Gary Herbert (R) cruised to a second term in Utah, and former Microsoft executive Doug Burgum (R) won his first term in North Dakota. Lt. Governor Eric Holcomb (R) won the race to succeed Vice President-elect Mike Pence as governor of Indiana.

In three competitive states, Republicans ultimately prevailed. Eric Greitens and Chris Sununu flipped Missouri and New Hampshire, respectively, for the GOP, even though pre-election polls showed their Democratic opponents leading. And Phil Scott (R) won the deep blue state of Vermont—no surprise to those who know the Green Mountain State has a history of electing Republican governors.

The only hiccup may turn out to be in North Carolina, where incumbent Pat McCrory (R) trailed Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) by less than 5,000 votes at press time. Absentee and overseas ballots had yet to be tallied.

The bright spots for the Democrats were wins by incumbents in Oregon and Washington and by John Carney in Delaware, which kept the state solidly in the D column. Tighter-than-expected races emerged in Montana and West Virginia, but Democrats prevailed in both states, keeping them in the blue column as well.

In the end, Republicans will wind up with either 33 or 34 governors. Thirty-four would     match their 1922 peak, but either number would be the highest total since 1998.

Total Control

Overall control of states, combining the legislature and governor, did not change dramatically as a result of the 2016 election. Before the election, there were 22 Republican states, eight Democratic and 19 where the power was shared. With New York and North Carolina still to be decided, Republicans now claim full control in 24 states. Democrats are down to only six states, and one of those, Washington, is actually divided because of the coalition that runs the Senate. In 17 states, power is divided.

American voters have mostly opted to put Republicans in charge of state capitols as well as Washington. One big question remains: Will Republicans and Democrats be able to work together after such a bruising campaign? Aaron Ford, Nevada’s new Senate majority leader, is optimistic. “Notwithstanding the cantankerous and tough tone of the campaign,” he says, “we are ready to focus on opportunities to work with the other side to help expand the middle class.” That is a goal Ford says he shares with the state’s Republican governor, whom Ford calls a friend. The governor has a vision for what he calls a “new Nevada,” and Ford says that his party and the Legislature are ready with a blueprint to work with the governor to make it a reality.

And, that is sure to be the case in other states as well. Good-bye 2016, lawmakers are moving ahead.

Tim Storey is the director of State Services at NCSL. Daniel Diorio, a policy specialist at NCSL, contributed to this article.

Sidebar: Women Stalled Below 25 Percent

     Election Day did not turn out to be the historic event for women many may have expected. Even at the state level, women’s representation will be virtually unchanged. A preliminary count shows that there will be around 1,824 women serving in the 50 states in 2017. That number is subject to change somewhat, as there are some contests still uncalled and recounts pending.

     The overall share of female legislators will be 24.7 percent. Though a record number of women ran for state legislative seats this year, and it will be the highest number of women ever, it is a very small increase from the 2016 numbers of 1,805 women and 24.4 percent.

     The national share of women legislators reached 24 percent following the 2008 election, and 20 percent in 1992. For women to reach 25 percent—one-quarter of all legislators—is a symbolic milestone that will have to wait for another election. The states with the highest percentages of women legislators are Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Vermont. At the lower end are Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming.

—Katie Ziegler

Chart: No Party for Presidents

The number of state legislative seats gained or lost by the president’s party during his time in office.

Dwight Eisenhower Republican 1952, 1954, 1956, 1958 -1,035
John Kennedy Democrat 1960, 1962 -414
Lyndon Johnson Democrat 1964, 1966 -234
Richard Nixon Republican 1968, 1970, 1972 -234
Gerald Ford Republican 1974 -628
Jimmy Carter Democrat 1976, 1978 -379
Ronald Reagan Republican 1980, 1982, 1984, 1986 +250
George H. W. Bush Republican 1988, 1990 -21
Bill Clinton Democrat 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998 -612
George W. Bush Republican 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 -108
Barack Obama Democrat 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 -816

Source: NCSL, September 2016

Additional Resources

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