Skip to main content

Against All Odds: How the Minority Gets Work Done in Supermajority Chambers

A State Legislatures News Special Report

By Stewart Schley  |  March 21, 2023

Rep. Maxine Dexter

North Dakota’s 2023 legislative session started with a bang: Kathy Hogan got conked on the head.

The state’s Democratic Senate minority leader was exiting the Capitol’s west entry on the session’s opening day when she tripped over a rug and fell, producing a thwack loud enough to be heard across the Senate floor.

Fortunately for Hogan, two colleagues immediately came to the rescue: Rep. Todd Porter and Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, both trained in emergency medical response. They helped Hogan to her feet and arranged for her to be transported to an emergency care facility, where she was treated for a cracked kneecap and a mild concussion. “Excellent response” is how Hogan described her Republican colleagues’ efforts.

For Hogan, the moment symbolized a little-understood reality of life in a lopsided state Legislature: Party affiliation takes a backseat to doing what matters. “The general public’s perception is that we fight about everything,” Hogan says. “And we do not.”

Good thing for her because, if they did fight, Hogan’s team would probably lose. In North Dakota, she faces an overwhelming imbalance: 43 Senate Republicans and just four Democrats. That gives the Republicans a veto-proof majority, also known as a supermajority, where one party has sufficient seats not only to pass any legislation it might choose but also to overcome a potential gubernatorial veto. Nationwide, there were 26 legislatures with veto-proof majorities after the last election: 17 led by Republicans and nine by Democrats.

Across the Aisle: Exploring Bipartisanship

At a time when evidence of a deep divide shows up every day on social media and in the news, this episode of NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast examines the steady effort many legislators are making to strengthen bipartisan work.

“There’s a strong positive relationship between legislators’ records of bringing in bipartisan co-sponsors on their legislation and having legislative success,” one researcher says. And that’s true even when a party has a so-called supermajority, enabling them to pass whatever they’d like without minority support. 

Listen now

Read more of this SLN Special Report: Groups Help Lawmakers Pursue Civility and Bipartisanship, the Unicorns of Politics

The North Dakota Democratic caucus is so thin that Hogan has resorted to recruiting citizen volunteers to sit on committee hearings and write up summaries on a shared Google document. There just aren’t enough Democrats to go around.

But staring down a lopsided Senate doesn’t mean Hogan or her party peers lack influence. That much was evident in January, when Hogan’s bill affirming the legal rights of physicians who perform abortions cleared the Senate on a 43-4 vote. One of the “no” votes came from a fellow Democrat, meaning Hogan won votes from 40 of her peers across the aisle.

The approval reflects the reality of politicking in states with veto-proof chambers: There’s more to the job than tallying predictable partisan votes. Hogan says she gets results by shrugging off the numbers and instead working to get along with people, regardless of party. “I build relationships,” Hogan says. “That is the heart of being effective and getting a bill passed.”

Building Trust

She isn’t alone in that sentiment. Across the country, lawmakers on both sides of the veto-proof aisle recounted multiple variations of the same theme. Supermajority or not, they say, legislative effectiveness frequently hinges on two things: a willingness to maintain personal relationships and a determination to focus on good ideas over partisan ideals.

Kentucky is an example. Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a conservative Republican, is part of a caucus that holds a 31-6 majority in the chamber, but he doesn’t much care. “Neither party has the market cornered on big ideas or solutions for the people of Kentucky or any other state,” Westerfield says. “Ideas can and do pop up from anyone. And they always will.”

One of Westerfield’s signature achievements as a lawmaker was a 2014 juvenile justice reform measure. He wrote the wide-ranging overhaul in collaboration with then-Rep. John Tilley, a Democrat who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, and it was signed into law by Kentucky’s then-Gov. Steve Beshear, also a Democrat. Propelling the bipartisan coalition was a shared sense of mutual respect over majority rule. “The whole thing falls apart if you don’t have trust in one another,” Westerfield says.

Other legislators cited a related solution to overcoming veto-proof pressure: old-school resolve to serve constituents. It’s a mandate that has been paramount for Kentucky Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a second-term Democrat in a chamber where Republicans hold an 80-20 edge.

Knocking on doors to gain support for her 2018 candidacy, the aspiring lawmaker heard the same plea over and over: Do your job. “Everything I heard when I asked people in the community was, ‘Don’t go up there with an agenda. Go up there and get something done.’”

Kulkarni took the advice to heart and promised that her No. 1 goal would be to make policy and avoid partisanship. In her first year, she worked the policy angle hard around a 2019 bill that would have barred so-called sanctuary cities in Kentucky. Kulkarni, an immigration attorney, saw undesirable outcomes looming everywhere: negative impacts on business, on hiring, even on the inner workings of Kentucky’s fabled horse industry, which depends heavily on immigrant labor. Marshalling religious leaders, business owners, law enforcement officials, immigration advocates and peers from both parties, Kulkarni stirred up a groundswell of opposition to the measure, which had been widely expected to sail through the Legislature. The bill never even made it to committee.

Kulkarni continues to apply lessons from that experience as she focuses on issues surrounding labor rights and the passage of so-called anti-SLAPP legislation that would thwart abusive litigation—or “strategic lawsuit against public participation”—that’s designed to silence dissent. To be effective as part of a minority party in a supermajority state, Kulkarni says, one should focus on the practical over the political. Otherwise, she cautions, nothing gets done.

“I was fully aware I had no power here,” she says of her dealings with the General Assembly’s majority members around the anti-sanctuary bill. To overcome that reality, she made sure to stick to the subject, cobbling together credible testimony and presenting facts to her peers. In a supermajority environment, it’s important, she says, to avoid any pretense of grandstanding: “It was about going in there and not being the enemy.”

A similar focus on policy over politics has helped North Dakota Rep. Corey Mock achieve a roughly 90% success rate on legislation he has introduced over the last six years. Mock serves in a Legislature where House Republicans hold an 82-12 majority. For him, a focus on serving constituents from his Grand Forks district is paramount. “I’m not here on behalf of a party,” Mock says. “My neighbor on Fourth Street doesn’t care what party I’m in.”

To that point, Mock says identifying as a Republican or a Democrat doesn’t automatically dictate voting outcomes. One of the recent shifts in North Dakota politics has been a willingness to devote a greater share of earnings from the state’s sovereign wealth fund, fed by a tax on oil extraction, to investments in infrastructure and business. Doing so has required increased collaboration among centrist Republicans and Democrats, yielding a new, mixed coalition of legislators from both parties. “I don’t see myself as a member of the minority party,” Mock says. “I think of myself as a member of a governing coalition.”

D.C. Diversion

One of the byproducts of the modern political environment is the assumption that some of the dysfunction roiling the U.S. Congress—combative Twitter feeds, performative partisanship, deep discord, raucous jeering at State of the Union addresses—must surely translate to the state level. But lawmakers pushed back against that analogy.

“We do have our differences, even within our party,” says David Hogue, the North Dakota Senate majority leader. “But it’s nothing compared with what you might have observed in Washington, D.C.”

In Massachusetts, where Democrats hold a commanding 134-25 advantage over Republicans, lone independent Rep. Susannah Whipps says the lopsided numbers don’t tell the entire story. Whipps, who caucuses with Democrats, believes the more important political determinant in her state is geography, not politics. “It may be a thrilling thing to say the Republicans and Democrats are at each other’s throats,” she says, “but it’s really more about rural versus urban. That’s where you see alliances.” She points to passage in 2019 of the Student Opportunity Act, which promises to inject more than $1.5 billion into K-12 school reform. The measure played across party lines, passing unanimously in both chambers partly because it addressed major concerns of lawmakers in both big-city and rural districts.

Kentucky’s Westerfield says he’s friendly with every Democrat in the Senate, including colleagues who are on opposite sides of highly charged issues such as abortion. Again, personal relationships rule. When U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy closed out his election as the House majority leader in January, Westerfield sent a text message celebrating the end of a rancorous campaign to the one Kentucky representative he knows best: Morgan McGarvey, a first-term congressman who is the lone Democrat in the state’s delegation. “I’m closer with him than any of the other five guys,” Westerfield says.

‘Don’t Overplay Your Hand’

It's a myth that veto-proof state politics mean lockstep agreement within a dominating party. In Hawaii, members of the Senate’s 23-2 Democratic supermajority recently squared off in a caustic confirmation hearing for Gov. Josh Green’s nominee to lead the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Any pretense of a rubber-stamp approval of the Democratic governor’s nominee, Ikaika Anderson, was quickly dashed as Democrats from two Senate committees tore into Anderson and his staff around issues of preparedness.

Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki says that supermajority imbalances tend to obscure a fundamental reality: There are always divisions within any party. Although he presides over a House with a 45-6 Democratic majority, Saiki says diversity of thought still rules. “When you have a supermajority, you tend to have splinter groups within your caucus, usually based on ideology,” he says. “There are a variety of perspectives within the caucus. So it’s not going to be rock solid.”

Saiki knows what it’s like to stare up at the political scoreboard. For the first few years of his tenure as an elected representative, he was a dissident member of the House Democratic caucus, refusing to support the speaker. “I was a minority member of a majority party,” he says. That’s one reason he makes a point of regularly reaching out to GOP colleagues for support and input.

There are institutional factors at work, too. Saiki, who was first elected in 1994 and became House speaker in 2017, thinks it’s important to recognize that, supermajority or not, familiar checks and balances remain in place across government branches. So does traditional back-and-forth political bargaining. Even in a veto-proof environment, “What’s important to remember is don’t overplay your hand,” Saiki says. “Don’t be arrogant.”

Still, despite efforts to be inclusive, supermajority legislatures risk weakening the everyday, push-and-pull tussling at the root of two-party politics. It’s a concern raised by Republican Sen. David Hogue of North Dakota. Although he jokes that he’d prefer a 47-0 Senate majority, Hogue points out one part of his job as majority leader is to encourage vigorous debate on issues, such as funding appropriation requests, within the context of an imbalanced chamber. “Quality of debate is dependent on the quality of legislators,” Hogue says. “I always encourage our members to ask the hard questions.”

Hogue also thinks it’s important to tap policy expertise, regardless of party affiliation or supermajority bragging rights. Lately, he has been working with two of the Senate’s four Democrats to resolve budget allocations in areas “where I know they have more expertise.” Similarly, Hogue and a Democratic colleague, Sen. Tim Mathern, are co-sponsoring legislation addressing immigration policy—a big issue in a state where a shortage of applicants has left more than 40,000 jobs unfilled as of early this year. Hogue also leans heavily on the experience of Kathy Hogan—she of the bumped head—for help with bills addressing health and human services. In these instances, the expertise of the legislator is more important to Hogue than the party identification. “Legislating comes down to personal relationships a lot of the time,” he says.

Appealing to the People

To remain relevant and impactful, minority caucuses can appeal to public sentiment. In Hawaii, where Democrats hold a 68-8 majority in the Legislature, the Republican caucus is determined to marshal the public to move the needle on a far-reaching legislative reform effort that is a key policy plank for 2023. “We don’t have the votes,” acknowledged Republican Rep. Gene Ward at a January news conference outlining the effort, “but we’ve got the voice and the public.”

Here again, partisanship doesn’t automatically dictate voting outcomes. In February, Republican Sen. Brenton Awa signaled his willingness to support a marijuana legalization measure co-sponsored by Democrat Jarrett Keohokalole, chair of the Senate’s Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. “Originally, I was going to vote ‘no’ on this one, but I’m going to trust your leadership,” Awa told Keohokaloe during a joint committee session.

In Massachusetts, where the Democrats hold a trifecta, Republicans are trying to overcome the odds by aligning with populist issues such as an expansion of child tax credits. Senate Republicans recently declared an across-the-aisle willingness to collaborate with Democratic Gov. Maura Healey on a major tax code overhaul designed to ease financial strains on residents. “The Senate Republican Caucus is ready to work with you, colleagues, and others so that we can take meaningful steps to address the hardships that households across the state are being impacted by,” Sens. Bruce Tarr, Ryan Fattman and Patrick O’Connor wrote in a letter to Healey in February.

North Dakota House Minority Leader Joshua Boschee recognizes that to get things done, it may be important to play to the interests of the guy on the majority side. In some cases, he’s been willing to let Republican colleagues take credit for the passage of bills—as long as it helps advance his policy ambitions. “We’ll go to our friends and say, ‘Will you lead this? Let’s put your name on it. And I’ll do all the work.’”

Besides working across the aisle on specific policy measures, legislators from the thinner side of supermajorities advocate a sort of chin-up mentality. “You can’t let the numbers intimidate you,” says Boschee, who represents the city of Fargo. “Just because we’re in the minority, doesn’t mean we don’t have support.”

Stewart Schley is a Denver-based freelance writer.

  • Contact NCSL

  • For more information on this topic, use this form to reach NCSL staff.