statehouse

July Update: Handicapping the 2020 State Legislature Races

If the arc of the 2020 election continues as it has for the past few months, the Democrats can look forward to gains in the state legislatures.

This is the conclusion of our second handicapping of state legislative control this election cycle; we published the first on Jan. 15. We're shifting eight chambers, six of which are currently held by the GOP, in the Democrats' direction. 

Our rating shifts are dictated by a national political environment in which President Donald Trump's chances of winning a second term have deteriorated amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic downturn, and racial justice protests following the death in police custody of George Floyd.

In the key midwestern battleground of Michigan, a surge by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leads us to shift the state House – the only chamber being contested in the state this cycle – from Lean Republican to Toss Up. We're also shifting towards the Democrats three chambers in southern presidential battleground states where Biden is running tight with Trump. In North Carolina, we're shifting the House from Likely Republican to Lean Republican, where it joins the state Senate, which had already been in the Lean Republican category. In Georgia, we're shifting both chambers from Likely Republican to Lean Republican. As a precaution, we're shifting both chambers in Ohio from Solid Republican to Likely Republican, following the arrest of the Republican House speaker. Finally, we're moving the Connecticut House and Senate, both currently controlled by the Democrats, from Likely Democratic to Solid Democratic.

As always, our assessment of the nation's legislative chambers – which we've published several times a cycle since 2002 – 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 "in play." "Likely" chambers aren't expected to shift partisan control, but they could see some seat gains by the minority party.

Currently, the GOP controls 58 legislative chambers while the Democrats control 40 chambers. Nebraska's unicameral legislature, which is nonpartisan, isn't included in our count. (For this tally, we counted the Alaska House's coalition leadership as a Democratic-held chamber, even though Republicans nominally control more seats.) 

The GOP's edge has narrowed from the 65 chambers the party controlled prior to the 2018 elections. That was already down from the 68 chambers the GOP controlled just before the 2016 elections.

The GOP has held the lead in state legislative chambers 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.

At this point for the 2020 cycle, we rate 18 chambers as competitive – slightly more than the 17 we saw as competitive in our final handicapping prior to the 2018 election. Ominously for Republicans, the GOP holds 13 of the vulnerable chambers on our list, compared to just five for the Democrats. This suggests that the Democrats are positioned to net at least a few chambers this fall.

Each 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 have placed nine Republican-held chambers in the lean Republican category: the Florida Senate, the Georgia Senate, the Georgia House, the Iowa House, the North Carolina Senate, the North Carolina House, the Pennsylvania Senate, the Pennsylvania House, and the Texas House. 

By contrast, the Democrats are playing defense in just three chambers we rate as lean Democratic: the Maine Senate, the Minnesota House, and the New Hampshire House.

The Toss Up chambers are more of a mix. The Democrats control two chambers at sufficient risk to qualify as Toss Ups: the Alaska House (where, as we noted, the Democrats lead a bipartisan coalition) and the New Hampshire Senate. The Republicans, meanwhile, control four of the chambers we rate as Toss Ups: the Arizona Senate, the Arizona House, the Michigan House, and the Minnesota Senate.

Here’s the breakdown by category:

Looking ahead, the political dynamics this year suggest that the Democrats are likelier to put additional chambers into play than Republicans are. 

Notably, we continue to rate several chambers in presidential battleground states as Likely Republican, even though Biden is polling well in those states. These include the Florida House and the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly. The reason the Republicans remain favored to hold these chambers is that these states have GOP-friendly maps in place. Still, we won’t rule out the possibility that one or more of these chambers could shift to Lean Republican as Election Day approaches.

All but one of the chambers we currently rate as competitive is in a state that’s become a presidential battleground for 2020. (The exception is Alaska.) That means that the presidential race should have a significant influence on how downballot races shake out. This includes legislative seats, which are some of the most generically partisan contests, meaning they could be influenced to an unusual degree by national political tides. 

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 amass a wave that cemented GOP gains for the better part of a decade. Democrats would like nothing more than to return the favor in 2020.

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

The data for the partisan breakdown in each chamber come from Ballotpedia; 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 and independents to control the state House. The Republican Party leadership is primarying a few of these breakaway Republicans; the primary is on August 18, and the results may provide more clarity about the chamber’s outlook. For now, though, there are too many moving parts, so we’re keeping the Alaska House at Toss Up.

ARIZONA

Senate: Toss Up
House: Toss Up

As recently as 2011-2012, the GOP held supermajorities in both legislative chambers in Arizona, but now Democrats are within striking distance in both, following a strong election cycle in 2018 that was driven by dissatisfaction about Trump among suburban and Hispanic voters. 

In the 2018 elections, the Democrats were just a few hundred votes shy of forcing a 30-30 split in the House. The party now needs two seats to flip the House and three to flip the Senate, and the environment for the Democrats is, if anything, even stronger than in 2018. Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Mark Kelly has maintained a strong lead over Republican Sen. Martha McSally, and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey is grappling with a spiraling coronavirus outbreak. 

It’s premature to say the chambers lean Democratic, so we’re keeping the ratings Toss Up for both.

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

In this solidly Democratic state, there’s no reason to think the Democrats will 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 Democratic. The party should be able to keep its hold on both Colorado legislative chambers.

CONNECTICUT

Senate: Solid D (shift from Likely D)
House: Solid D (shift from 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. 

Today, the possibility of Republican gains in Connecticut look even dimmer. While Connecticut voters haven’t been especially happy with their Democratic governors in recent years due to sluggish economic growth, Republican candidates for the legislature will have trouble breaking through on state issues, due to the widespread dissatisfaction with Trump. In a May poll by home-state pollster Quinnipiac University, Biden led Trump by 23 points.

At this point, Republicans are as likely to lose seats in both chambers of the legislature as they are to gain them. We’re shifting the rating of both chambers from Likely Democratic to Solid Democratic. 

DELAWARE

Senate: Likely D
House: Solid D

Delaware has become a securely 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, Florida Democrats haven’t controlled either chamber since the mid-1990s. Could that change this year? The Democrats would need 14 seats to flip the House and four to flip the Senate.

Some of the elements are slipping into place for Democratic gains. Biden has jumped out to nearly a seven-point lead over Trump in the state, a far wider margin than either party has achieved in key statewide election results in recent years. Moreover, Biden has been polling unexpectedly well among seniors, of which Florida has plenty. And the state is experiencing a major coronavirus outbreak, which poses risks for the political strength of GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican majorities.

We’re keeping the Senate at Lean Republican and the House, with a heavier lift, at Likely Republican. However, if the Florida GOP keeps taking hits, we might eventually shift the House to Lean Republican. 

GEORGIA

Senate: Lean R (shift from Likely R)
House: Lean R (shift from Likely R)

At the time of our last assessment, it did not seem that Georgia Democrats were likely to produce a legislative takeover in just one cycle. That’s still probably the case, but recent developments have given the party some optimism. 

Thanks to demographic and partisan developments in the Atlanta suburbs, Biden has pulled into a virtual tie with Trump in the presidential race, and Democrats were pleased to see high and enthusiastic turnout in the June primary. In addition, the coronavirus is spreading quickly in Georgia, with risks for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been among the governors most aggressively pushing to open businesses.

The Democrats would need 16 seats to take control of the House and eight to take the Senate. There probably aren’t enough competitive races for either chamber to flip, but it’s no longer impossible. We’re shifting both chambers to Lean Republican.

HAWAII

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

The Democrats’ 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

Ethical problems are swirling around legendary and long-serving Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, as federal prosecutors this month settled with Commonweath Edison over allegations that the utility had given jobs and contracts to associates of Madigan. While Madigan has not been personally implicated, the case will only worsen the state’s reputation for less-than-clean politics.

But will this matter electorally this year? Probably not. The Democrats have built up a solid cushion 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. This is the fifth election under a strongly Democratic map, and because of staggered terms, only one-third of the Senate seats are even up this year. The Democrats have a big cash edge over the GOP, and Republican candidate recruiting has been underwhelming.

If legislative Democrats show any weakness as the election approaches, we’ll adjust our rating. But for now, we’re keeping both chambers at Solid Democratic.

INDIANA

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Not much over a decade ago, the Democrats controlled the Indiana House. Since then, however, 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 voted for Trump by 10 points in 2016, the state is a virtual Toss Up in recent presidential polls. 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; the Democrats would need to net four seats to take the chamber. 

In 2018, the Democrats picked up five seats in the chamber, and a longtime Republican legislator switched parties. Still, we’re not quite ready to call it a Toss Up. We’re keeping the chamber at Lean Republican for now.

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 Democrats only need to gain one state House seat and two state Senate seats to break GOP supermajorities, which would aid Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. 

Making those gains is now a real possibility. Indeed, the relative strength of Biden in the state and the strong U.S. Senate candidacy of Democrat Barbara Bollier could bring out strong suburban turnout in swing areas such as Johnson County near Kansas City. That could have a ripple effect for Democrats in legislative races.

The legislature could become more conservative even if Democrats gain enough seats to break the supermajority if moderate Republicans lose to more conservative challengers in the August primaries. 

KENTUCKY

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Democrat Andy Beshear may have won the 2019 gubernatorial race in Kentucky, but 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. As the electoral map slips away from Trump, there’s less reason for his campaign to expend resources to win the single electoral vote he took in 2016 in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. 

We’re keeping the more narrowly divided Senate at Lean Democratic for now, but it could end up joining the House as Likely Democratic before Election Day.

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: Toss Up (shift from Lean R)

Michigan has no Senate races this year, but each of the 110 seats in the House will be up in 2020, and the Democrats would need to net four seats to flip the chamber. (Maps from a newly created independent redistricting commission will not be in effect until the 2022 election.) 

As one of the trio of key states Trump flipped in 2016 to win the presidency, Michigan was going to be heavily contested by both parties this year. But Biden has jumped out to nearly a double-digit lead in the state, and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has majority approval after her efforts to handle the coronavirus outbreak. 

If the GOP writes off Michigan down the stretch, the Democrats may be able to pick up the handful of seats they need to flip the state House. We’re moving the chamber from Lean Republican to Toss Up.

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. Both chambers in Minnesota should be competitive in 2020, and it’s possible that either party could consolidate their control. 

There are wild cards: The impact of the death in police custody of George Floyd and the unrest in Minneapolis that followed, as well as how well Democratic Gov. Tim Walz manages the coronavirus crisis as schools start up again.

Biden seems to be maintaining a double-digit lead in Minnesota, and if we see signs of softening support, we’ll adjust our ratings. But for now, we’re keeping the Senate at Toss Up and the House at Lean Democratic.

MISSOURI

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

After trending heavily Republican in recent election cycles, the national Democratic swing is even reaching Missouri this year. That could lead to some GOP legislative losses on the margins. However, the Republican edge in both chambers is too big for even a Democratic wave to flip control. So we’re keeping Missouri’s chambers at Solid Republican.

MONTANA

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Montana this fall will be home to competitive races for U.S. senator, governor, state attorney general, and secretary of state, but the fight for control of the state legislature won’t be in much doubt. We’re keeping both chambers at safely Republican.

NEVADA

Senate: Likely D
Assembly: Likely D

For years, Nevada had competitive fights to control its legislative chambers. No longer; Nevada has become a state with a modest but distinct blue lean. The Democrats have a supermajority in the Assembly and are one short of a supermajority in the Senate. (With a Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, that’s not as important a benchmark as it is in some states.) 

Frustration with the coronavirus and its economic fallout, which has hit hospitality-heavy Nevada particularly hard, make it possible that the Republicans could pick up a seat or two in the Assembly, but they have little shot at taking the Senate. Barring a coronavirus-driven backlash against Sisolak and the Democratic legislature, it looks like Democratic control after 2020 should continue.

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. The Democrats control both chambers, and Trump’s polling deficit in the state has expanded in recent months to the high single digits. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is significantly better positioned to win another term, but it’s unclear whether his coattails will be enough to flip either chamber.

With just a small seat gain needed to flip control in the Senate, we’re calling the chamber 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 most notable development so far in New Mexico’s legislative campaign cycle occurred in the June primary, when five of seven progressive Democratic challengers ousted veteran Democrats with more moderate-to-conservative profiles. 
For the general election, at least three of these progressive primary winners will be defending rural seats, giving the GOP some opportunity to play offense. But Republicans will also be defending three seats in the Albuquerque area that will be at risk due to the suburban gravitation away from the GOP. 

The Trump campaign has repeatedly shown an interest in contesting New Mexico despite double-digit polling leads for Biden. Even if they do, it’s not clear that their efforts would have much of a down-ballot impact. We’re keeping both chambers in the Solid Democratic column.

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 the Assembly nor the Senate is vulnerable to a party switch in 2020.

NORTH CAROLINA

Senate: Lean R
House: Lean R (shift from 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 major 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 maps, but Republicans start with an edge to keep control after 2020. 

Democrats need to keep 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. But with Biden maintaining a modest but consistent lead in the state and Cooper looking strong for reelection, Democrats are now thinking even bigger.

For Democrats to flip the Senate chamber, the easier of the two, they would need to seize two of the six seats that currently lean Republican, in-state analysts say. To flip the House, the Democrats would need to pick off five of 12 seats that lean Republican. 

If a Democratic wave reaches North Carolina, they might be able to seize one or both chambers. But ticket-splitting is more common in the Tarheel State than in many places. We’re keeping the Senate at Lean Republican, where the House now joins it.

NORTH DAKOTA

Senate: Solid R
Assembly: Solid R

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

OHIO

Senate: Likely R (shift from Solid R)
House: Likely R (shift from Solid R)

As we were finishing our ratings, news broke that Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder was arrested as part of a $60 million bribery case. The Republicans have wide margins in both legislative chambers (and Householder was actually elected speaker with the support of Democrats and some Republicans). The GOP has wide leads in both chambers, but the uncertainty about the impact of the bribery case, combined with Ohio's return to battleground status in the presidential race, leads us to move both chambers to Likely Republican.

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

While Democrats in Oregon may need to worry a bit about their legislative supermajority status, both chambers should remain in Democratic hands. Any GOP pickups could be balanced out by Democratic gains, especially in a presidential year in a strong Democratic environment. The protest clashes in Portland — and the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on them — are a possible wild card.

PENNSYLVANIA

Senate: Lean R
House: Lean R

Pennsylvania may be a swing state for higher offices, but it’s been pretty solidly red for a long while at the legislative level. The GOP starts with an edge at keeping control, but the Democrats will probably be able to add this fall to their 2018 pickup of five Senate seats and 11 House seats. The Democrats would need to net nine seats to flip the House and four to flip the Senate.

Biden has jumped out to a lead in the high single digits in Pennsylvania, and his Scranton roots could win back some voters in reddish areas who supported Trump when he won the state in 2016. That could trickle down to help Democrats running for legislative seats, but it remains to be seen whether the Democratic tide is sufficiently strong to flip enough seats to shift control of one or both chambers.

We see two X factors. First, for the first time in a legislative cycle, Pennsylvania will not have a straight-party voting option. And second, the state will also be grappling with the shift to heavy mail balloting, which could have unpredictable effects on turnout patterns.

RHODE ISLAND

Senate: Solid D
House: Solid D

The Democrats have an 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 and maybe even strengthen in 2020. Will they be big enough to flip the state House? Maybe, though it remains an uphill battle.

Seat-by-seat analysis from Rice University shows that the Democrats would have to win one GOP-held House seat now considered lean Democratic, plus five GOP-held seats now in the tossup category and three of the five 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.

The state Senate has fewer competitive seats, although the Democrats are reasonably well positioned to pick up at least one GOP-held seat. Still, the Democrats aren’t expected to put a lot of effort into state Senate races, since their focus is on the state House. Winning the House would at least give the party a seat at the table as the post-2020 Census round of redistricting gets under way.

UTAH

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

Ruby-red 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 reelection, 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 Washington’s state 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 odd campaign environment during a pandemic makes it even harder for the minority party to make their case in a generally unfriendly state.

The main question is whether Democrats can secure a two-thirds supermajority this year. The margin in the Senate is closer than the one in the House; 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. The Democrats would need to net four seats to flip the chamber, but that is a decidedly uphill climb. 

WISCONSIN

Senate: Likely R
Assembly: Likely R

Wisconsin, which Trump won narrowly in 2016, has somewhat unexpectedly seen Biden open up a high-single-digit lead. Superficially, this would seem to put both GOP-held legislative chambers in play, but the current GOP-drawn maps make that challenging. 

Of the two chambers, the numerical margin is closer in the Senate – the Democrats would need to net two seats to flip. However, the Democrats will also have to defend a couple of vulnerable seats, making it harder for the party to focus on playing offense.

We’ll reassess later in the cycle, but for now, we don’t see enough movement to shift either the Wisconsin Senate or Assembly to Lean Republican. 

WYOMING

Senate: Solid R
House: Solid R

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