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The upside of voter turnout, which was high this year, is that it shows citizen engagement; the downside is that it is often indicates unhappiness in the body politic, since voters are more motivated by what they don’t like than what they do like.

2022 Midterm Elections: 11 Takeaways

By Wendy Underhill and Ben Williams | Nov. 17, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

Election Day is past but it isn’t over: Nothing is sure until all the counting, recounting and certifying is done. Three dozen state legislative races haven’t been officially called yet, and partisan control in three chambers is still TBD. Even when all the races are final, change will continue. Between Election Day and the start of sessions, it’s common for more than a handful of legislators to step down to take another office.

But it’s not too early to say this: It’s been a good, if not great year for Democrats across the states as they picked up at least three legislative chambers and netted two governors’ seats. Since Punditville was calling in advance for 2022 to be a good year for Republicans, even a red wave, the results made Team Blue happy indeed.

1 — The President’s Party Lost Seats

The strongest trend in American politics continues to be true: The president’s party loses seats during midterm elections. Only twice since 1900 has that not been the case: 1934, when President Roosevelt was riding high, and 2002, when President George W. Bush added to the GOP’s take not long after 9/11.

This year, Republicans are on track to gains 40 seats in legislatures nationwide, give or take a handful. That’s not much, given that the average gain in midterms by the opposition is over 400. Still, a gain is a gain is a gain.

After the 2020 election, 3,999 (54.1%) of the nation’s 7,383 seats were held by Republicans. Democrats held 3,302 (44.7%) seats.

The tally after the elections of 2021 and ’22 gives the Republicans 4,039 (54.7%) of the total 7,386 and the Democrats 3,268 (44.2%). (The total increased by three, to 7,386, because Wyoming added three seats during redistricting—one in the Senate and two in the House.) Not much change—but it was change favoring Republicans.

Numbers will settle as Alaska completes its counting; this is the first year the Last Frontier is using a ranked choice voting system, in which any races where the highest vote getter didn’t clear the 50% mark get re-tallied. That takes time. Also a dozen New Hampshire House races met the automatic threshold for recounts, so those events are underway now, and a couple of races in the Pennsylvania House are not yet called, leaving partisan control in that chamber up in the air. Recounts are looming there, too.

2 — Democrats Gained Chambers

While the GOP gained seats, Democrats gained chambers this year. At this point, the Michigan House and Senate and the Minnesota House have flipped from red to blue.

Chamber control in Alaska and Pennsylvania is still to come. The Pennsylvania House, held by Republicans for 12 years, is on a razor’s edge and may not be called until recounts are completed.

It might seem counterintuitive that the GOP gained seats and the Democrats gained chambers, but that’s what happened. In fact, this is the first midterm election since 1900 when the opposition party did not take over at least one chamber. Instead, both parties shored up their majorities, and it’s the distribution of seats that matters.

In West Virginia, for instance, the Senate now stands at 88 R’s and 12 D’s. (While that outcome is overwhelming, it’s not the only one. In Hawaii’s Senate, Democrats have a 23-2 edge.)

Before the election, 62 chambers were held by Republicans, including the Virginia House, which flipped to red in 2021, and Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, which is officially nonpartisan but for all practical purposes under Republican control. The Democrats held 37.

Post-election, Republicans hold 57 chambers to the Democrats’ 39, with three chambers outstanding. Hence, Democrats are happy, and Republicans are proud to retain their advantage.

It looks likely Republicans will have the numerical advantage in both of Alaska’s chambers—but they may not have political control. The state is ripe territory for governing coalitions.

A change of three chambers in an election (or four chambers over a two-year cycle, including the Virginia House) is minimal. Over the last 120 years, on average, 12 chambers have flipped in each two-year cycle. Compared with recent election cycles, this year is on par. In 2019 and 2020 together, four chambers flipped. In both 2017-18 and 2015-16, nine chambers flipped.

Legislative elections were held in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands, as well as in all 50 states. Unsurprisingly, power remains with the Dems in D.C. In Guam, Democrats took nine of the 15 seats; in the Virgin Islands, Dems are now at 11 with independents holding four seats; and in American Samoa, all legislators are elected on a nonpartisan basis.

3 — Split Legislatures at Historic Low

The number of split legislatures, where the two chambers are held by different parties, remains at a historic low. Virginia’s is the nation’s only split legislature going into 2023, based on the House flipping to red in 2021. So far, 2022 ties the low in 2020, when Minnesota had the only split legislature. Prior to that, the last time there was only one split was in 1914. Between 2000 and 2018, splits averaged 7.7.

It’s possible that the Pennsylvania Legislature might be split, pending final vote counting for the House. One of Alaska’s chambers might also organize under a coalition as well.

Whether in the end there are one, two, or even three split legislatures (counting a possible Alaska coalition), this will continue the recent trend toward more unity at the legislative level.

4 — Dems Close the Governor Gap

Changes in the nation’s gubernatorial lineup favored Democrats. Before the election, Republicans held 28 governorships to the Democrats’ 22. Post-election, Republicans still lead, 26-24. The last time the Democrats held at least half of the governorships was in 2009, when the count was 28 Democrats and 22 Republicans.

Of 36 gubernatorial races this month, 28 had an incumbent running. Of those, only one lost, as Republican Joe Lombardo unseated incumbent Democrat Steve Sisolak in Nevada. Incumbency is hard to beat.

Of the eight open governors’ races, Democrats picked up three vacated by Republicans, in Arizona, Maryland and Massachusetts. With the Nevada result, that’s a net of two for Democrats. But wait, there’s more! Including the 2021 election in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Republicans took two governorships and Democrats took three in the two-year cycle.

Remember above, a gain is a gain is a gain? True here, too.

5 — More Trifectas

Governors matter in large part because they can promote, or block, policy agendas in legislatures. In that sense, they become the third point of political power, after the House and Senate. More states are under one-party control after this election than previously, continuing a trend that began in the 2010s.

Before this election, Republicans had full control in 23 states, Democrats had full control in 14 states, and 13 states had divided control. Post-election, Republicans continue to hold 22 states (with Pennsylvania and Alaska still TBD), and Democrats have moved up to 17, a big gain. The number of divided states is down to 10.

Over the last decade, the number of states with one-party control has increased, and the number of states with divided state control has decreased commensurately. In the 2000s, there were on average 20 states with divided state control; after elections from 2010-18, there were about 17 states with divided control. With just 10 states under divided control, we’re at the lowest since 1952.

6 — More Veto-Proof Majorities

As unified state control has gone up, so too has the number of veto-proof majorities. Both represent the same phenomenon: States are unifying under one party or the other, a trend that’s been coming for some time.

Coming out of Election Day, at least half the nation’s legislatures are on track to have veto-proof majorities next year, giving America’s first branch of government more control than ever over policymaking. Before the election, 21 states had such majorities: 15 for Republicans and six for Democrats. Post-election, five more are likely: Vermont, Delaware and Illinois for Democrats, and Florida and Ohio for Republicans. NCSL has further analysis on veto-proof majorities.

7 — Voters Were Kind to Leaders

This election was good for incumbent leaders, both governors (apart from Sisolak in Nevada) and legislative leaders. No top leaders (House speakers and top Senate leaders) were defeated by challengers at the ballot box. That doesn’t mean there aren’t changes coming in legislative leadership, though. Before Election Day, at least 32 of the top leadership positions in the country were sure to be held by someone new in 2023 due to retirements, term limits and leaders choosing to run for other offices. Check out NCSL’s list of anticipated legislative leaders for the 2023 session and its analysis of leaders elections.

8 — Women Continue to Make Gains

The percentage of women serving in state legislatures just keeps going up. Before the election, women represented just over 30% of the 7,383 legislators nationwide; post-election, they make up 31.9% of the total, now at 7,386 after redistricting.

Nevada is still finalizing numbers, but we expect women in the House and Senate to hold 38 seats, 60% of the total 63 seats. The Colorado House also is 60% female (39 of the 65 representatives). Women will hold 50% of the seats in New Mexico’s House, and the Oregon House is expected to have the same percentage. While most states have stayed steady in the number of women legislators, Delaware, Florida, Idaho and Nebraska showed a bump in female representation. The women in Florida, Kentucky and Ohio are mostly from the Republican side of the aisle.

9 — Turnout Was Strong

Voter turnout typically dips way down in midterms compared with presidential years. It Is true that this year’s turnout—46.9% of the voting-eligible population, according to the U.S. Elections Project—was lower than 2020’s record-smashing turnout of 66.6%. It was even slightly down from 2018’s also-record-smashing midterm turnout of 49.4%. Still, it was way up from the midterms of 2014, when 36.7% of the voting-eligible population turned out, and 2010 (37.8%) and 2006 (37.2%).

In total, that means there have been three general elections in a row with high or historic turnout. The upside of high turnout is that it shows citizen engagement; the downside is that it is often an indicator of an unhappy body politic, since voters are more motivated by what they don’t like than what they do like.

10 — Congress Continues to Lure State Legislators

Legislatures are often proving grounds for politicians on their way up, either to statewide offices or to Congress. That’s been true for decades and continued to be true this year.

In the 117th Congress, 45 senators (22 Republicans, 23 Democrats) and 212 representatives (108 Republicans, 102 Democrats, one independent and one New Progressive Party member) were former state legislators.

The 118th Congress, which begins in January, will be very similar, with 44 former state legislators slated to serve in the Senate and 195 in the House. A few races with former legislator incumbents are yet to be called. As of publication time, there had been two additions to the Senate—with Vermont Democrat Peter Welch moving from the House to the Senate—and 31 additions to the House.

11 — With Every Election Come Campaign Spending Records

With each passing election cycle, spending on state legislative races grows. During the 2022 cycle, over $1.1 billion was spent on legislative races, according to FollowTheMoney.org. More is spent on Senate seats than House seats, but amounts vary by state. Candidates for the California Senate spent $1.9 million on average, while Iowa Senate candidates spent $340,000. In New Hampshire, where there are 400 House seats and the pay is $100 annually, candidates spent an average of $207, whereas in Texas, where there are 150 seats, it cost nearly $640,000 to run for a House seat.

One way to think about these staggering figures is that they amount to “votes” for the importance of policymaking at the state level. As Congress faces two years of gridlock, states are where the action is—and apparently donors know it.

Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program; Ben Williams is a policy principal in the program.

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