statehouse

Handicapping the 2020 State Legislature Races

lou
January 15, 2020

Over the past few election cycles, America’s increasingly polarized political culture has ironed out many partisan outliers in the state legislatures. These days, reliably blue states at the presidential level tend to have reliably Democratic legislatures, and strongly red states tend to have strongly Republican legislatures.

This has left roughly a dozen states — mostly battlegrounds in the presidential race — that will play host to competitive fights over legislative control in one or both chambers.

This is our first handicapping of state legislative control of the 2020 election cycle — and the project’s return to the Cook Political Report, where it began in 2002. (Subsequent editions appeared in the Rothenberg Political Report, Stateline.org, and Governing magazine.)

As always, our assessment is based on interviews with dozens of state and national political sources. We rate chambers on the following scale: Solid Republican, Likely Republican, Lean Republican, Toss Up, Lean Democratic, Likely Democratic and Solid Democratic. The categories labeled "Lean" and "Toss Up" are considered competitive or in play. “Likely” chambers aren’t expected to shift partisan control, but they could see seat gains by the minority party.

Currently, the GOP controls 58 legislative chambers while the Democrats control 40 chambers. (For this tally, we counted the Alaska House’s coalition leadership as a Democratic-held chamber, even though Republicans nominally control more seats.)

That’s down from the 65 chambers controlled by the GOP prior to the 2018 election. In turn, that was down from the 68 chambers the GOP controlled just before the 2016 election.

The GOP edge in state legislative chambers has been consistent for a decade. As recently as the run-up to the 2010 election, Democrats held a 62-to-36 advantage in chambers, but that degree of Democratic control has suffered from a combination of a strong GOP redistricting cycle in 2010 and the slow but permanent loss of yellow-dog Democratic chambers in the South.

Nebraska's unicameral legislature, which is nonpartisan, isn't included in our count.

At this point for the 2020 cycle, we see 15 competitive chambers – close to, but slightly less than, the 17 we saw as competitive in our final handicapping prior to the 2018 election.

All of the chambers we’re placing in the lean Republican or lean Democratic categories are currently controlled by the party they lean towards. To put it another way, in these chambers, the party that controls the chamber is playing defense in 2020.

We see seven Republican-held chambers in the lean Republican category: the Florida Senate, the Iowa House, the Michigan House, the North Carolina Senate, the Pennsylvania Senate, the Pennsylvania House, and the Texas House. The Democrats are playing defense in just three lean Democratic chambers: the Maine Senate, the Minnesota House, and the New Hampshire House.

Meanwhile, the tossup chambers are close to evenly split between the parties. We see five chambers as tossups: the Alaska House (where Democrats lead a bipartisan coalition), both chambers in Arizona (which are currently held by the GOP), the New Hampshire Senate (which is currently held by the Democrats), and the Minnesota Senate (which is currently held by the GOP).

The chambers we came close to rating as competitive — but have held off for now – are the North Carolina House and the Wisconsin Senate. Both are held by the GOP and currently rate as likely Republican. But depending on how the political winds develop, they could shift later to lean Republican.

Here’s a table that breaks down the competitive chambers on our list:The GOP needs to defend more competitive chambers this fall — by a two-to-one margin. That suggests that Democrats might be able to post net gains of a couple chambers when all is said and done.

On the other hand, if Republicans can keep a Democratic wave from developing, the total shift in partisan control seems unlikely to be dramatic. If the lean Republican and lean Democratic seats remain with the party currently in control and the tossup chambers end up splitting roughly evenly between the parties, the net change would be small — maybe a chamber or two.

Of course, the presidential race is poised to play a significant impact on state legislative races.

All but one of our competitive chambers is in a state that’s shaping up to be a presidential battleground for 2020. (The exception is Alaska.) That means that spending on the presidential race — and the identity of the nominees leading each party’s ballot — could have a significant influence on downballot races like legislative seats.

Will an energized Trump base in rural areas of states like Florida, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania help the GOP maintain vulnerable legislative chambers? Or will the Democrats succeed in flipping some of those Trump-won swing states, aiding the party’s quest to flip GOP held chambers? No one knows yet.

A key factor at stake this year: The 2020 election cycle will be the last one before the state-by-state lineups are set in advance of post-2020 Census redistricting. In 2010, Democrats seemed to be asleep at the switch in legislative races, allowing Republicans to put together a wave that cemented GOP gains for the better part of a decade.

This time, it should be more of an even fight between the parties. A Democratic redistricting initiative headed by Barack Obama and Eric Holder has raised $52 million since it was founded, Politico reported in December.

Listed below are our ratings for each state, with a thumbnail analysis.

The data for the current partisan breakdown in each chamber comes from the National Conference of State Legislatures; seats that are vacant are not included in the totals.

2020 State Legislative Control Ratings

 

ALASKA

Senate: Solid R
House: Toss Up

Alaska’s Senate ⁠— like the state in most ways ⁠— is solidly Republican. But for several cycles running, the Democrats have worked with a splinter faction of moderate Republicans to control the state House. Alaska politics is particularly hard to predict, so for now, we’re calling the chamber a tossup.

ARIZONA

Senate: Toss Up
House: Toss Up

Democrats were thrilled with their 2018 performance in this once solidly Republican state, which was driven by dissatisfaction among suburban and Hispanic voters about Trump. This might just be the year when the Democrats manage to flip control of one or more Arizona legislative chamber. (The closest the Democrats have gotten in recent years is a tie two decades ago, and it lasted just two years.) As recently as 2011-2012, the GOP held supermajorities in both legislative chambers, but now Democrats are within striking distance in both. Already, House Democrats were just a few hundred votes shy of forcing a 30-30 split after the 2018 elections. The House looks slightly more likely to flip control than the Senate in 2020, both we’re rating both chambers tossup.

ARKANSAS

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Arkansas Republicans, who first achieved a majority in 2012, will remain firmly in control in 2020 and beyond.

CALIFORNIA

Senate: Solid D
Assembly: Solid D

California Republicans are as endangered these days as the California condor, and with demographics and national political trends going the Democrats’ way, there’s no reason to think they’ll lose much if any ground in the legislature in 2020.

COLORADO

Senate: Likely D
House: Solid D

In just a few election cycles, Colorado has transitioned from a purple state to one that’s increasingly in the Democrats’ camp. In many an election cycle recently, one Colorado chamber or the other has been on our competitive list. No longer. Unless clouds emerge on the Democratic horizon later in the cycle, the party should be able to keep its hold on both Colorado legislative chambers.

CONNECTICUT

Senate: Likely D
House: Likely D

Going into the 2018 elections, the Connecticut Senate was tied, and the GOP was in striking distance of taking over the House. The Democratic wave of 2018 put the kibosh on Republican hopes of consolidating power, with Democrats taking sizable leads in both chambers. Connecticut voters haven’t been especially happy with their Democratic governors in recent years – first Dannel Malloy and now Ned Lamont – due to sluggish economic growth and troubles with the state budget. But in 2020, any Republican momentum from state worries is likely to be outweighed by the drag from Trump’s presence on the ballot.

DELAWARE

Senate: Likely D
House: Solid D

Delaware has become a solidly Democratic state in recent years, so despite the close margin in the state Senate – which produced a tie with one vacancy as recently as 2017 – the Democrats are odds-on favorites to keep control in both chambers.

FLORIDA

Senate: Lean R
House: Likely R

Despite its perennial swing state status and close races for numerous statewide offices in recent years, Florida Democrats haven’t controlled either chamber since the mid-1990s, and it is unlikely that they will pick up the 14 seats they need in 2020 to take control in the state House. In the Senate, however, netting three seats (to force a tie) or four seats (to win outright control) is not out of the question.

GEORGIA

Senate: Likely R
House: Likely R

Georgia is a state where Democrats have high hopes for the future, but while the Atlanta suburbs are driving the party’s recent surge of optimism, those gains are not likely to produce a legislative takeover in just one cycle. Look for some Democratic advances in both chambers, but continued minority-party status is expected for a little longer.

HAWAII

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

The Democrats’ ridiculously wide margins in the Hawaii legislature are safe for the foreseeable future.

IDAHO

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

The Republicans have nothing to worry about in solidly red Idaho.

ILLINOIS

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

The Democrats are in good shape in Illinois, thanks to the imbalance between populous Chicagoland and more sparsely settled downstate, as well as to the increasingly bluish tint to the once-red Chicago suburbs.

INDIANA

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Not much over a decade ago, the Democrats controlled the Indiana House. Since then, though Indiana Republicans have solidified their stronghold on both chambers of the legislature. Today, both chambers are safe for the GOP.

IOWA

Senate: Likely R
House: Lean R

While Iowa leaned heavily into Trump in 2016, the state is looking more competitive in 2020, especially given the Trump trade policy’s impact on Iowa’s significant farm sector. The margin in the state Senate is probably too wide for the Democrats to overcome in one cycle, but the state House is a different story. In 2018, the Democrats picked up five seats in the chamber, and a longtime Republican legislator switched parties. The GOP maintains an edge in the chamber, but narrowly.

KANSAS

Senate: Likely R
House: Likely R

There’s little question that the Republicans will maintain numerical majorities in both chambers after the 2020 election, but the more salient question is how sizable the contingent of moderate Republicans proves to be. Kansas has a long history of moderate Republicans teaming up with Democrats, rather than their more conservative fellow Republicans, to pass centrist-oriented policies. The 2018 election of a moderate Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, could intensify that process. Another wild card is the possible GOP nomination of staunch conservative Kris Kobach for a U.S. Senate seat, which could lead some ordinarily GOP-leaning voters to defect at the top of the ballot and put pressure on Republicans running downballot.

KENTUCKY

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

A Democrat, Andy Beshear, won the 2019 gubernatorial race in Kentucky, but don’t expect his narrow victory in this solidly red state to make much of a difference on state legislative control. The GOP has a firm grip on both chambers.

MAINE

Senate: Lean D
House: Likely D

Maine Democrats have decent margins in both chambers, and they are coming off a 2018 election in which a Democrat, Janet Mills, took back the governorship. But Trump’s ability to win an electoral vote in 2016 from the more rural of Maine’s two congressional districts could have an impact downballot in 2020. For now, Democrats should maintain control, but the closer of the two chambers, the Senate, looks like it will be competitive.

MASSACHUSETTS

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

The Democrats have a stranglehold on the Massachusetts legislature, and that’s not changing any time soon.

MICHIGAN

House: Lean R

Michigan has no Senate races this year, but each of the 110 seats in the House will be up in 2020. (Maps from a newly created independent redistricting commission will not be in effect until the 2022 election.) Michigan will be heavily contested by both parties in the presidential race, and that contest is sure to have downballot effects. In 2018, the Democrats picked up six House seats, mainly in southeastern Michigan, that they had not won in a long time, but Republicans won one in the more rural Upper Peninsula, so on balance the Democrats netted five. Republicans feel they can win some of those seats back, and they have achieved better fundraising totals than the Democrats have. The House looks like it will be competitive, but the GOP starts with an edge.

MINNESOTA

Senate: Toss Up
House: Lean D

Currently, Minnesota is the only state other than Alaska in which one party controls one state legislative chamber and the other party controls the other one. For 2020, both chambers in Minnesota should be competitive, and it’s not inconceivable that either party could consolidate their control. With a surprisingly close presidential contest in the state in 2016, both parties will be paying attention to Minnesota, with a possible impact on legislative races. The best news for the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is that most of the competitive seats in both bodies will be based in the Twin Cities suburbs – a region where the Democrats have been on the march during the Trump era. In the Senate, meanwhile, the path to DFL control runs through a few Republican-held seats where Trump's support is soft.

MISSOURI

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Missouri has been trending heavily Republican in recent election cycles, and the GOP margins in both chambers are sizable. Unless Democratic challengers gain significant traction in the 2020 gubernatorial contest, the GOP should be in good shape in the Missouri legislature.

MONTANA

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Montana this fall will be home to competitive races for governor, state attorney general, and secretary of state, but the fight for control of the state legislature won’t be in doubt. Both chambers will be safely Republican.

NEVADA

Senate: Likely D
Assembly: Likely D

For years, Nevada had competitive fights to control its legislative chambers. No longer, as Nevada has become an increasingly blue state. The Democrats have a supermajority in the Assembly and are one short of a supermajority in the Senate. (Of course, with a Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, that’s not as important a benchmark as it is in some states.) Any Republican gains would be marginal; Democratic control after 2020 looks solid.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Senate: Toss Up
House: Lean D

New Hampshire, with a small Senate but an enormous House, is known for its wild electoral swings. Add to this the reality that Hillary Clinton barely beat Trump in 2016 in the state and you have the recipe for uncertainty for 2020. At stake is control of the redistricting process, which Republicans were able to leverage successfully in 2010. Since this is the last election before the 2020 Census, the New Hampshire GOP will make an aggressive play to take over both chambers this fall. With just a small seat gain needed to flip control in the Senate, we’re calling that a tossup. With a much larger shift required in the House, we’re rating that lean Democratic.

NEW MEXICO

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

The Democrats should be able to maintain control in both chambers in New Mexico. In the House, the Democrats picked up a handful of swing seats in 2018 cycle, so the party will be focused on keeping those in the fold. Meanwhile, in the Senate, the biggest story will be primary challenges from the left against a handful of moderate Democrats.

NEW YORK

Senate: Solid D
Assembly: Solid D

After a long run of GOP control in the New York Senate (sometimes aided by breakaway Democrats), the Democrats now have a comfortable edge in the chamber, in a state that’s remained solidly blue. Neither chamber is vulnerable to a party switch in 2020.

NORTH CAROLINA

Senate: Lean R
House: Likely R

With a competitive presidential race this year, as well as contests for U.S. Senate, governor, and a bevy of statewide offices, North Carolina will be a big focus of political attention in 2020. The state will be using new legislative maps that are a bit more favorable to Democrats than the previous GOP-drawn map, but Republicans will start with the edge to keep control after 2020. Democrats will be focused on keeping the GOP below 30 seats in the state Senate and 72 seats in the state House, to avoid a Republican supermajority that could thwart Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. A Democratic takeover of one or both chambers is possible, but likelier in the Senate. In fact, it will be a crucial goal for the party, which wants to assert some leverage in the post-2020 Census redistricting.

NORTH DAKOTA

Senate: Solid R
Assembly: Solid R

The Republicans are on ultra-safe ground in solidly red North Dakota.

OHIO

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Regardless of how competitive Ohio becomes in the presidential race, the Republicans have wide margins in both legislative chambers and a significant money advantage.

OKLAHOMA

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

There’s no indication that the Democrats will take back any significant ground from the GOP in Oklahoma.

OREGON

Senate: Likely D
House: Likely D

Both chambers should remain in Democratic hands, but the party needs to worry about its supermajority status. The Oregon Senate will have at least five open seats, including one given up by a Democrat in a GOP-leaning district. A Republican win there could help reduce the Democratic threshold below supermajority status. The House, meanwhile, should have at least a dozen open seats, with the GOP needing a net gain of two seats to break the supermajority.

PENNSYLVANIA

Senate: Lean R
House: Lean R

Pennsylvania may be a swing state in higher offices, but it’s been pretty solidly red for a long while at the legislative level. The Democrats had a tie in the Senate about three decades ago, and they mustered narrow leads in the House after the 2006 and 2008 elections. Now, the Democrats have a shot at taking over at least one chamber, although the GOP starts the cycle with an edge. The Democrats picked up five Senate seats and 11 House seats in 2018. Pennsylvania will a major focus of national attention in 2020, potentially producing unpredictable downballot effects.

RHODE ISLAND

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

The Democrats will keep their insurmountable lead in both chambers in Rhode Island in 2020.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

South Carolina is reliably red, and the GOP is in no danger of losing much ground, if any, in 2020.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

The GOP will have no problem maintaining its wide lead in South Dakota.

TENNESSEE

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Tennessee’s legislative chambers were controlled by the Democrats as late as the mid-2000s, but those days are long gone. Today, Republicans have dominant control.

TEXAS

Senate: Likely R
House: Lean R

The Democratic gains in Texas in 2018, driven by electoral strength among suburban and minority voters, are poised to recur in 2020. Will they be big enough to flip the state House? Maybe, though it will be an uphill battle. Seat-by-seat analysis from Rice University shows that the Democrats would have to win two GOP-held seats now considered lean Democratic, three GOP-held seats now in the tossup category, and four of the eight GOP-held seats rated as lean Republican. Whether the Democrats can manage to do that will depend heavily on how big the Democratic presidential nominee’s coattails are.

UTAH

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Red-state Utah may not be in love with Trump, but it likes its homegrown Republicans just fine. The GOP will easily control both chambers of the legislature for the foreseeable future.

VERMONT

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

While GOP Gov. Phil Scott remains favored to win the election, he is unlikely to have much of a coattail effect in legislative contests. The Democrats should maintain their big margins in the Vermont legislature.

WASHINGTON

Senate: Likely D
House: Solid D

Most of the GOP’s competitive seats in the House got wiped out in 2018, and Trump, who’s unpopular in the state, will be heading the ballot this fall, mostly to local Republicans’ detriment. The main question is whether Democrats can secure a two-thirds supermajority this year. The margin in the Senate is closer; it’s possible that the GOP could gain a seat or two.

WEST VIRGINIA

Senate: Likely R
House: Solid R

The GOP has taken West Virginia by storm in recent years, and with the popular Trump on the ballot in 2020, it doesn’t look like a year in which Democrats can make major legislative inroads, despite the modest margins in the Senate.

WISCONSIN

Senate: Likely R
Assembly: Likely R

Wisconsin, which may be poised to be the decisive state in the 2020 presidential election, will be a huge focus of political attention this year. However, the current GOP-drawn maps make it challenging for Democrats to seize either chamber, despite winning the governorship and other state executive offices in 2018. Of the two chambers, the numerical margin is closer in the Senate, so it’s possible it could shift to lean Republican later in the cycle.

WYOMING

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Wyoming is solidly Republican; expect no major changes at the state legislative level in 2020.