Republicans Still Control Most of the Nation’s Legislative Seats, but the Gap Between the Parties Narrowed Considerably
By Tim Storey and Wendy Underhill
Editor's note: For complete election results, please visit NCSL's StateVote 2018 page.
Democrats scored significant wins in state legislatures on Nov. 6, beating Republicans handily and notching some key chamber flips. Yet, it was hardly a “thumping,” as President George W. Bush described the results of his 2006 midterm elections, or a “shellacking,” as President Barack Obama referred to his first midterms.
The GOP was braced for deeper losses given that their control was at all-time highs going into the election and a swing of the pendulum was likely. The party of the president had lost seats in 27 of the 29 midterm elections since 1902. The exceptions: 1934, with America in the teeth of the Great Depression, when FDR’s Democrats won big, and 2002, as the nation prepared to go to war after 9/11, when Republicans made gains.
The net gain for Democrats in this two-year cycle will be a little more than 300 seats. That’s somewhat modest and well under the average loss of 424 seats for the party in the White House during a midterm. Republicans control 53 percent of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats, but the gap between the two parties narrowed considerably and Democrats now have more seats than at any point since they lost 710 in the 2010 election.
Control Is Key
Seats are important. But what really matters is gaining functional majorities in legislative chambers, and Democrats added seven of those this year.
Democrats took the senates in Colorado, Connecticut (which was previously tied) and Maine, the House in Minnesota and both chambers in New Hampshire. Add to that tally the New York Senate, which had been nominally a majority Democratic chamber (32 D to 31 R) but was led by a coalition of a few Democrats and all the Republicans. Democrats surged to 40 seats, ending the GOP-led coalition.
The brightest spot for the GOP was in the Last Frontier. The Alaska House, like the New York Senate, was led by a coalition for the last two years. Republicans gained enough seats to end the Democrats’ functional control of the chamber.
Where We Stand
When legislatures convene next year, the GOP will lead 61 chambers to the Dems’ 37. That adds up to 98 chambers because Nebraska’s single-chamber legislature is officially nonpartisan, though widely acknowledged to be Republican controlled. Democrats control both chambers in 18 states, compared with the Republicans’ 30.
This midterm also consolidated partisan control of states more so than any election in over a century. Minnesota is now the only state where the two parties share legislative power. Republicans hold the North Star Senate by just one seat, while Democrats have an eight-seat advantage in the House. It has been 104 years since there was only one divided legislature—Montana’s in 1914.
Add the governor’s office to a legislative majority and you’ve got total state control, aka a “trifecta.” Dems gained six trifectas, for a total of 14, up from eight before the election, while the GOP maintained its strong advantage in state policymaking, with 21 trifectas.
Speaking of governors, Democrats gained seven and Republicans picked up Alaska, which had an independent governor. That leaves the governorship numbers at 23 Democrats and 27 Republicans.
Based on unofficial returns, Democrats achieved veto-proof supermajorities in both Oregon chambers, the Delaware House, the Illinois House and the Nevada Assembly. They also gained enough seats to end Republican supermajorities in the Michigan Senate, both North Carolina chambers and the Pennsylvania Senate.
Turnout and Turnover
This election clearly got voters’ attention. Turnout was up. Way up. In midterms, anything north of 40 percent participation is considered average, even good. In the 2014 midterm, turnout dipped to 37 percent. According to elections guru Michael McDonald at the University of Florida, more than 48.5 percent of eligible voters participated this year, a 50-year high.
Perhaps the biggest headline was the spike in turnover. This election will bring a flood of new faces—nearly 1,700—to legislatures nationwide. More than 23 percent of the seats will be filled by new legislators, including record numbers of women. Average turnover for legislative elections is typically under 20 percent.
Voters in 19 states elected new governors. And more than 35 of the country’s 99 chambers will have a new top leader. That translates to a lot of new ideas, innovations and varied experiences to draw on as these state leaders get to work.
Tim Storey is NCSL’s director of state services. Wendy Underhill is NCSL’s director for elections and redistricting.
Editor's note: This story was updated several times as election results were finalized.
This article appears in the print edition of the November/December 2018 issue with the headlines “Red, Wide & Blue: Will election results narrow the widening partisan gap?”