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Control of Congress matters. But which party now runs your state might matter more

Supporters react during an election night event for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers at The Orpheum Theater on Nov. 8 in Madison, Wisc. Evers defeated Republican challenger Tim Michels Tuesday.
Jim Vondruska
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Getty Images
Supporters react during an election night event for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers at The Orpheum Theater on Nov. 8 in Madison, Wisc. Evers defeated Republican challenger Tim Michels Tuesday.

Who leads your state's government shapes daily life in the United States. These governors and legislatures make policy on guns, abortion, education and the environment.

Combined with gridlock at the federal level, "where you live now increasingly determines what policies you live under," said Thad Kousser, professor of political science at UC San Diego.

In the 2022 midterms, Democratic candidates exceeded expectations in state leadership races, winning competitive contests for governor and flipping state legislatures. But Republicans sailed to victory in their strongholds.

Here's how the midterms shook up state-level leadership.

Democrats picked up at least 2 more governor's offices

In the close races, Democratic governors were usually the ones on the defense. Biden's low approval ratings and inflation woes stoked fears of a "red wave."

But many Democrats in tighter competitions won reelection: Gov. Janet Mills in Maine, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers also won a second term. He will continue to work with a state legislature led by Republicans. Gov. Laura Kelly kept the governor's office in Kansas, a state which former President Donald Trump won twice.

The party also solidified its control in two states where registered Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans: Maryland and Massachusetts. In both, the Democratic candidate won an open governorship that a Republican had vacated. Democrats now completely control state government in both states. (When one single party controls the state house, state senate and governor's office, it's called a "trifecta.") While state legislatures in both were already able to override vetoes from the outgoing Republicans, it will now be even easier to pass Democratic agenda items with a trifecta.

There will also be a Democratic trifecta in Oregon, where Democrat Tina Kotek emerged victorious on Thursday night out of a close race with Republican Christine Drazan.

"We had the best midterms for governors since 1986," President Biden told reporters at a press conference this week.

Going into the election, Republicans held 28 state gubernatorial offices, and Democrats, 22. That number will change, although final results are pending in a few states.

No matter what, the majority of Americans "will be living in states where Democrats are governors" in 2023, due to their wins in high-population states, said Ben Williams of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), during a press call.

Democrats also took control in some swing state legislatures

The Republican Party has controlled a majority of state legislatures in the country since 2010.

This cycle, two Democratically-aligned outside spending groups put $80 million into beginning to change that, on top of the around $50 million spent by the party itself. Part of the mission was to make sure state legislatures did not work to overturn the results of the next presidential election, as many GOP lawmakers did in 2020.

Democrats succeeded beyond their expectations.

The party flipped the Michigan state House and the state Senate, a chamber it has not controlled in four decades. That will give Democrats a clear path to enact their agenda items. In her victory speech, Democratic Gov. Whitmer said that would include growing the economy, improving public education, and continuing to "fight like hell" to protect fundamental rights.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats also claim to have flipped the state House of Representatives, holding a press conference to announce their victory. In that chamber, state Rep. Joanna McClinton could be the first Black woman to become speaker of the Pennsylvania House.

The Associated Press has not yet called all of these races, and the state Republican party has not conceded. "We believe Democrats claiming the majority at this time is premature and we are continuing to closely monitor a number of races where votes are still being counted," Pennsylvania House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman told NPR.

Some of Democrats' success in Michigan and Pennsylvania can likely be attributed to new voting districts maps drawn after the 2020 Census.

Democrats also took a supermajority in both chambers of the Vermont state legislature, meaning the party can now override the GOP governor.

The night he won reelection, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis walks onstage during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8.
Giorgio Viera / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The night he won reelection, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis walks onstage during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 8.

Republican incumbent governors cruised to victory

Republican governors brushed off challengers, even in races that were thought to be close. In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacy Abrams for the second time, and by a wider margin. In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis narrowly defeated his 2018 opponent, he walloped his 2022 challenger Charlie Crist, winning by a double-digit margin. Gov. Greg Abbott also defeated Beto O'Rourke in Texas, winning a third term.

In a much tighter race, Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma overcame a challenge from state education official Joy Hofmeister.

The GOP may still pull off an upset in Nevada, a state that voted for President Joe Biden in 2020. Gov. Steve Sisolak is trailing Las Vegas area sheriff Joe Lombardo, a Republican, in his bid for reelection. The Associated Press has not yet called the race.

But in Arizona, where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is term-limited, the race is too close to call. As of Friday, former local Fox television anchor Kari Lake and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs are still locked into a tight race. Lake, who has made false claims about the integrity of the 2020 election, initially declined to say if she would accept the outcome of her race if she lost.

Republicans still control most state legislatures

Republicans held or strengthened their trifectas by picking up seats in Florida, the Iowa Senate and South Carolina's House. The party now holds veto-proof majorities in Florida and Ohio. In these states, many conservative policy priorities have already been enacted or proposed, such as permitless gun carrying and restrictions on teaching about gender or sexuality in schools.

Growing those majorities, even under Republican gubernatorial leadership, could lead to infighting.

"Just because you wear the same jersey doesn't mean that you are always playing for the same goals," said Williams from the NCSL.

But the GOP was unable to gain overwhelming majorities in some states with divided governments, which means Democratic governors will still be able to exercise their veto powers. Republicans gained a supermajority in the Wisconsin Senate, but not the Wisconsin House.

That's significant because the state's Democratic governor, Tony Evers, survived a close contest to win a second term. During his first, he vetoed more than 140 bills and will continue to be able to veto Republican-passed legislation.

The same thing happened in North Carolina. Republicans won a supermajority in the state Senate. But Democrats said they have kept enough seats in the state House to keep the GOP from steamrolling Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Divided governments like these are becoming rarer. "Starting in 2010 and in nearly every election since then, the red states have gotten redder and the blue states have gotten more blue," said Kousser, the political scientist.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.