Legislative Races Could Determine Control of Several States

Largely unnoticed by the national media, control of legislative chambers in a dozen or more states could flip in November

The New York State Senate debates legislation in the Senate chamber on June 16, 2011 in Albany, New York.

The New York State Senate. Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

As is typical, most of the media attention heading into the election’s home stretch is focused on the presidential race and whether Democrats can pick up one, or perhaps even both, chambers of Congress.

Very little national attention, however, is being paid to ten or more states where Democrats could pick up state legislative chambers if the party wins decisively this November. Republicans may also have a couple of opportunities, including one in a state that appears to be running counter to both its normal habits and the national trend.

Although you won’t read or hear much about these contests from most national media outlets, they are crucial. With Washington gridlocked for a decade, and continuing gridlock likely, most of what gets done in government anymore happens on the state and local levels.

Ground zero this year is in the suburbs of Denver, where Democrats could grab full control of the Colorado state government if they can pick up a single state senate seat. Already in control of the governorship and the House, Team Blue is zeroing in a district just a few miles northwest of the Mile High City featuring a rematch between a Republican incumbent who edged her Democratic challenger by about 600 votes in 2014. A Democratic win would wipe out an 18-17 GOP edge in the Colorado senate. This may be the single most consequential election in any state legislative district in America this year.

Full Democratic control is also a possibility in Minnesota, where Democrats control the governorship and the Senate but trail 73-61 in the House. That may seem like too big of a majority for Team Blue to overcome, but over the past decade, the Gopher State has seen very large swings at the legislative level. A sizable Democratic victory in Minnesota should do the trick.

As it happens, the home of the Observer is also one of the states where Democrats will be attempting to pick up a majority in at least one chamber. Technically, the Democrats are tied 31-31 (with one vacancy) in the New York State Senate, but one Democrat, Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, caucuses with the Republicans, and five other Democrats who call themselves the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) also often cross party lines as well. So Democrats really need 38 seats, out of 63, to ensure themselves a majority. Democratic control of the Senate would give Team Blue full control in the Empire State, for only the second time since the 1930s, as amazing as that fact is in a state that has long been a Democratic bastion.

Washington is another state where a turncoat Democratic state senator caucuses with the Republicans, who already have a 25-24 edge in that chamber. In fact, both chambers are close enough to swing, but the Democrats control the House 50-48, and with Team Blue on offense, it seems unlikely the GOP would pick up a chamber in a state that is certain to go Democratic at the presidential level by a decisive margin. A gain of two senate seats, and a hold in this year’s governor’s race, would put Team Blue in full control.

Two states that would need, and could get, big turnover in their lower houses are Nevada and New Hampshire. Republicans have what appear to be sizable leads in both, but in Nevada, their 24-17 edge was swept in two years ago by extremely low Democratic turnout, and the GOP holds a number of Democratic districts around Las Vegas. Senate control in Nevada is also within reach, with the GOP holding only an 11-10 advantage, but even if Democrats win both chambers, the trifecta is out of reach; Republican Governor Brian Sandoval’s seat is not up for election this year.

In New Hampshire, which has a 400-seat House and districts containing only a few hundred voters, wild swings have flipped the chamber from red to blue several times in recent cycles. The Senate, which Republicans control 13-9 with two vacancies, tends not to swing as heavily, but with a big enough victory, and a hold in an open-seat governor’s race, the Democrats (at least theoretically) would have a shot to win full control of the state.

Democrats also covet the Maine Senate, where Republicans currently hold a 20-15 edge, and the New Mexico House, where Team Red is up 37-33. In both cases, Democratic victories would give Team Blue both legislative chambers, but they still would have to contend with Republican governors whose terms are not up until 2019.

Also close, but less likely to flip, are Republican advantages in both houses in Arizona and in the West Virginia state Senate.

Of the few states where Republicans can reasonably expect to go on offense, Team Red looks to crack the final Democratic legislative nut in the entire South. The Democrats are hanging on to a 53-47 majority in the Kentucky House, the only state legislative chamber in Dixie that has not yet fallen to the Republicans. The GOP hoped to already be in control of the chamber, but a series of special elections last year surprisingly went the Democrats’ way. A four-seat gain would give Team Red, which already controls the governorship and the Senate, full control.

Another state where Republicans might be looking at stealing a chamber is Iowa, where Democrats have stubbornly clung to a narrow majority since the 2010 nationwide wipeout that swept away hundreds of Democratic legislators. The GOP already controls the governorship and holds a commanding lead in the House, so if Republicans can pick up three Senate seats, they would take full control. While Iowa typically goes Democratic in presidential election years, this has been one of the rare states where Republican nominee Donald Trump seems to be outperforming typical Democratic performances — in part because the state’s popular Republican governor, Terry Branstad, and the state GOP organization, are enthusiastically backing the GOP nominee.

So while these races are not getting much attention nationally, they will be very consequential in a number of key states. Keep an eye out.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com.