The 2020 election brought with it a fair share of legislative leadership changes—though many were decided well before voters went to the polls on Election Day. In fact, 20 of the 31 top leadership changes were due to leaders terming out, stepping down voluntarily or retiring.
The remaining 11 included some surprises, however:
- Four top senate leaders—in Alaska, Delaware, New Mexico and West Virginia—lost their primaries earlier in the year.
- Two house speakers were ousted in the general election: Vermont Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Rhode Island Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, both seasoned legislators and leaders. Johnson filed for a recount, to be held Nov. 18, as she lost by only 20 votes.
- Four leaders will change due to chamber flips. Both New Hampshire chambers went from the Democrats to the Republicans, and both Puerto Rico chambers changed hands, though the Senate looks like it may have a coalition.
- At least two top leadership positions changed due to the tradition that the top leader serves only a certain amount of time, then steps down. Such is the case in Wyoming.
Notably, these are just the 31 top leadership changes we know about at this time. It’s not uncommon to see a sitting leader challenged, which may still happen during organization sessions, or even into January.
Minority leadership races weren’t without their surprises this year either. A handful of long-serving minority leaders stepped down (both before and after the election), and we saw some attention-grabbing upsets in the general election. In particular, minority leaders in the Georgia House, Kansas Senate, Pennsylvania House and Maine Senate all lost their races.
See the accompanying maps and the summaries below to see how the leadership landscape is unfolding so far. (By the way, “top leadership” means the top political leader in a chamber. That’s the speaker of the house in most cases for houses of representatives. In senates, the top leader could be the president, the president pro tempore, the lieutenant governor or the majority leader, depending on the state.)
The Alaska Senate will have a new, yet-to-be-determined president. The House is most interesting. Currently, there is a coalition with an independent speaker, but it looks like the Republicans will have a functional majority and will select a speaker from their caucus. Many races are still being tallied in Alaska. This is one to watch!
Both top leaders—House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R) and Senate President Karen Fann (R)—retained their positions. The minority leader in the House will step down, and the minority leader in the Senate didn’t run.
Senator Jimmy Hickey (R) will become the chamber’s president pro tem in his third time running for the top leader spot after a surprising, secret vote put him in line for the position.
Representative Alec Garnett (D), the current majority leader, will become speaker for his final two years in the Colorado House. There must be something leader-producing in the water in his district—he was elected following the term-limited previous speaker, Mark Ferrandino (2014).
Representative Matt Ritter (D) will be the youngest person to serve as speaker of the Connecticut House. His father served as speaker from 1993 to 1998.
The Democratic caucus went with entirely new leadership following the primary loss of their longtime leader. Senator David Sokola (D) will now lead the chamber. He certainly is a resilient legislator, making the most of a challenging 2020 by becoming a beekeeper!
Senator Wilt Simpson (R) was selected two terms ago to become Senate president. An egg farmer by trade, he’ll tackle the challenges of 2020 egg-cellently!
Representative Chris Sprowls (R) was selected by his peers years ago to fill the speaker slot. In Florida, the incoming class chooses who will be speaker eight years down the road.
Both chambers have new faces in the pro tem and majority leader spots as well.
House Minority Leader Bob Trammel lost his seat as the last Democrat representing a rural area. Representative James Beverly (D) will take up the minority leadership role.
Long-serving Senate leader Brent Hill announced his retirement earlier this year, and his successor is yet to be named.
The former GOP leader in the Illinois Senate will step down but continue to serve as a senator. Senator Dan McConchie will lead the chamber’s Republican caucus.
The Indiana Senate selected Greg Taylor (D) as the new minority floor leader. He’ll take over from the current leader, Senator Tim Lanane. Taylor is the first African American to hold the leadership position in the Senate.
The Iowa House chose to keep its leadership team, headed by Speaker Pat Grassley (R), unchanged. Grassley is the grandson of U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley.
Iowa Senate Republicans chose Jake Chapman as president and retained Jack Whitver as majority leader.
Senate Minority Leader Janet Peterson (D) will step down after leading the caucus for three years; her replacement is yet to be named.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley (D), who has served in the role since 1996, lost his race.
Representative Ryan Fecteau (D) has been selected as speaker of the Maine House. At 28 years old, he’ll likely be the youngest speaker in the country (and in recent history).
Senator Bryan Simonaire (R) is slated to become his chamber’s new minority leader.
Representative Jason Wentworth (R), a U.S. Army veteran, will assume the speakership in Michigan. He’ll be joined by new faces in the pro tem, majority and minority leadership positions.
If you weren’t paying attention to Minnesota last week, you should take a look! The Senate was very competitive, and Republicans maintained control of the chamber by the narrowest of margins. In a move of political chess, they named a Democrat as Senate president—Senator David Tomassoni. Why do this, you ask? The thinking is that U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar may be named to a post in the Biden administration, thereby starting a chain reaction that could lead to the Senate president assuming the role of lieutenant governor. Senate Republicans don’t want to gamble their razor-thin, one-vote margin on one of their own having to assume the lieutenant governor’s role, leaving the seat open to a competitive special election. The GOP intends to replace Tomassoni early next year, reinstating the current president, Jeremy Miller.
Representative Rob Vescovo (R) will take the reins in Missouri as speaker for his final two years in office before he’s term-limited.
Both top leaders in Montana were term-limited. Replacements have yet to be named.
Also due to term limits, there will be a new speaker of the Senate in the nation’s only unicameral legislature. The election for leader will be at the start of session.
Both chambers flipped in New Hampshire, meaning both will have new leaders. There’s a race for speaker in the House, and the Senate has coalesced around former President Chuck Morse (R).
Senator Mary Kay Papen (D), a long-serving legislator and president pro tem, lost in the primaries; a successor has yet to be named.
Senator Matt Huffman (R) was selected to be the next Ohio Senate president and will be joined by a new president pro tem and majority leader. Huffman and the others all held leadership positions in the Senate or House previously. The House is keeping Speaker Bob Cupp (R), who assumed the position late last spring after a surprising turn of events that removed former Speaker Larry Householder (R) due to an ongoing investigation.
Senator Jake Corman (R) will be the new president pro tem in the Pennsylvania Senate, replacing Joe Scarnati, who retired. Also of note, Senate Republicans named Kim Ward as majority leader; she’s the first woman to hold the post.
After Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D), who has served as speaker since 2014, lost his seat in a tight race, Representative and Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi (D) was selected by his caucus as the new speaker.
After a handful of losses, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler (D) is stepping down after serving in the position for eight years. Several candidates are jockeying for the spot.
The Republican caucus chose a new Senate president pro tem—Lee Schoenbeck. It’s his second time in the leadership position, having led in 2005-06.
Representative Dade Phelan (R) appears to have the votes locked up to become the next speaker in Texas.
After final vote tallies, Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) lost her election by a mere 20 votes. The race is slated for a recount Nov. 18. In the meantime, a handful of representatives are exploring the idea of running for speaker should Johnson’s recount prove unsuccessful.
In the Senate, former leader Tim Ashe (D) did not run for reelection and will be replaced as president pro tem. Majority Leader Becca Balint (D) is seeking the position.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R) lost his primary earlier this year, leaving the top spot open. Senator Craig Blair (R) says he has unanimous support for the position. Caucuses meet in early December to choose leaders.
Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R) won his race for Congress, leaving the majority leader position up for a race. Senator Devin LeMahieu (R) will assume the job of top Senate leader.
Traditionally, Wyoming leadership changes every term. Two years ago, that tradition was bucked, but it looks like 2021 will see a new speaker. A few candidates have tossed their hats in the ring.
Both chambers of the Puerto Rico legislature changed hands from the New Progressive Party to the Popular Democratic Party, likely leading to new leadership in both chambers.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Senator Donna Frett-Gregory (D) will be the new president of the USVI Senate. Traditionally, the unicameral legislature alternates presidents every two years between districts. The current president, Novelle Francis (D), will become vice president.
Overall, the net change in leadership seems about average. The new leaders will face tough decisions and challenges right from the start due to the coronavirus. And it looks like there are some talented new legislators stepping up to lead. That’s a good thing because, as we all know, state legislatures are where the job of governing gets done.
Stacy Householder is NCSL’s director of leadership and international programs.