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Democrats Look To Make Gains In State Legislatures

Robert Odeki (center) marches with SEIU Local 105 as the union protested for a minimum wage of $15 an hour outside the Colorado State Capitol in September.
Joe Amon
Denver Post via Getty Images
Robert Odeki (center) marches with SEIU Local 105 as the union protested for a minimum wage of $15 an hour outside the Colorado State Capitol in September.

State legislatures have become crucibles for some of the most controversial policies in recent years — voter ID laws, religious freedom bills, minimum wage hikes, gun control measures and more.

And they're places where Republicans have had remarkable electoral success over the past six years. The GOP now controls a record 67 out of 98 partisan state legislative chambers (Nebraska has a unicameral nonpartisan legislature), while Democrats hold just 31. Republicans fully control legislatures in 22 states, while Democrats have control in eight; 19 states have divided control of their legislatures.

"The challenge for the GOP in this election is that they are at historic highs," Tim Storey, senior elections analyst with the National Council of State Legislatures, said on Morning Edition last month. "So it's a lot more difficult for them to make much ground from here. So Democrats see this as an opportunity year."

Democrats have long believed they would make up ground this year. Turnout in a presidential year is typically better for their party, and early on it looked like the White House and many Senate races would go their way too. But now a tightening map could give Republicans a reprieve in these state races as well.

In a September memo, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said they saw 14 chambers as possible pickups for them, and anticipated flipping between eight to 12 chambers. But as the picture has soured somewhat for Democrats, winning back six chambers would be a good night for them. Some of their top targets are also presidential battlegrounds, like Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and New Hampshire. States like Iowa and New Hampshire where Republican prospects have improved are much harder now than they were even a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the Republican State Leadership Committee sees opportunities in places like Kentucky, Democrats' lone holdout in the South. They also think they could flip the Iowa state Senate and even the Washington state House.

Republicans also argue that voters have been able to make distinctions between the presidential and local level, and will continue to do so this year. In 2012, there were 410 state districts that President Obama carried that Republicans won. And 23 of the chambers that Republicans control now are in states that Obama won twice. Democrats control just one chamber in a state Mitt Romney carried in 2012.

Here's a snapshot of what to watch on election night in state races:

The one-seat wonders

Five state Senate chambers could shift if just one seat flips. Republicans have a narrow edge in Colorado, Nevada, Washington state and West Virginia, while Democrats have a one-seat majority in the Iowa state Senate.

Democrats think a growing Hispanic electorate will especially help them in Colorado and Nevada. In Nevada, early vote turnout has been very encouraging for Democrats. Veteran Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston noted that could go a long way in helping them flip not just the state Senate but also the state Assembly, where Republicans have a seven seat majority.

But with Trump and other Republicans running stronger in Iowa and West Virginia, Republicans could see gains. The Des Moines Register noted that Republicans have outspent Democrats on many state legislative races and now have a voter registration advantage in about a half-dozen key races. In West Virginia, voters are used to splitting their tickets, which gives Democrats hope. But Trump could win the state by more than 30 points and Republicans are praying that victory comes with coattails for their legislative races and the governor's contest, too. Democrats were once optimistic, but admit it's much harder now in West Virginia.

Democratic targets

Republicans hold small majorities in the Arizona Senate, the Maine Senate, the New Hampshire Senate, the Wisconsin Senate and the New Mexico House. Latino turnout in Arizona and New Mexico could also help Democrats' chances to make gains.

Democrats also think that backlash in North Carolina and Michigan can help them claim some victories. North Carolina Republicans faced a backlash earlier this year when they passed HB2, the so-called "bathroom bill," that mandated transgender persons had to use the restroom of the sex on their birth certificate. Democrats are unlikely to take over either the state House or Senate, but could gain seats. Similarly, Democrats think backlash from the Flint water crisis has hurt Michigan legislators and believe they could make gains there as well. They need to flip nine House seats in Michigan for a majority.

Republican opportunities

While Republicans are mostly on defense, there are some places where they're looking to flip chambers to their side. At the top of the list is Kentucky, the Democrats' lone holdout in the South. Republicans need to flip only four seats to win the state House, and after flipping the governor's mansion last year they're optimistic. There are 25 districts Democrats hold that Gov. Matt Bevin carried when he was elected last November.

In addition to the Iowa state Senate, Republicans also think they could pick up seats in the Washington state House, where they've made gains in the past five elections. Republicans are defending their one-seat margin in the state Senate, but they trail Democrats by two seats in the state House.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.