The Most Important Elections Of 2022 Could Be In State Legislatures

The Most Important Elections Of 2022 Could Be In State Legislatures

In September, West Virginia passed a law effectively banning abortion. In July, California enacted a law allowing citizens to sue gun merchants for making or selling illegal firearms. In 2021, Georgia, Florida and Texas were among the states to tighten their voting laws in response to false claims of voter fraud. The same year, Illinois became the first state to eliminate cash bail.

These momentous policy changes were only possible because the same party controlled the state Senate, state House and governorship. When one party enjoys a state-government “trifecta” or has enough of a legislative majority to override vetoes by a governor of the opposite party, it can enact virtually any legislation. 

Currently, 44 percent of the population1 resides in one of the 25 states where Republicans control state government, and 38 percent live in one of the 16 states controlled by Democrats. But that could change after the midterms when 88 state-legislative chambers and 36 governorships are on the ballot.

Which party controls state government?

Control of the governorship, state Senate and state House in all 50 states

While the number of competitive state legislatures shrank to a handful as a result of redistricting, there are still 10 states where one party could seize full control of state government this year. And there are eight states where one party may lose complete control. So here are the races on the ballot this November that will decide the future of policymaking in those states.

Where either party could take full control

Six states could end 2022 under total Democratic control, Republican control or divided government. 

Let’s start with three states where Democrats currently control the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature, but could potentially lose all three. In Nevada, the governor’s race is a toss-up, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast.2 And although Democratic mapmakers tried to make the chamber more solidly Democratic in redistricting, the state Assembly is rated “Lean Democratic” by CNalysis, a state-legislative forecasting website. Republicans could also flip the state Senate, though that will likely be a taller order. There are only three competitive seats this cycle, and Republicans need to win all three to take control, including one with a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of D+7.3

Maine is another Democratic-controlled state that could become completely red. Despite being slightly more Democratic-leaning than the country as a whole, Maine has a bipartisan redistricting process that yielded a state House map with a median seat that leans Republican (R+2). The new state Senate map, with a median seat of D+2, is also competitive and has attracted even more campaign spending than the House. That said, Democrats have reason to be optimistic. Through the first week of October, they had spent four times more on state-legislative races than Republicans, and Republicans have only an outside shot at picking up the governor’s mansion. Still, if even one chamber flips, Republicans will have deprived Democrats of total control.

Oregon has emerged as a problem spot for Democrats, partly because of outgoing Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s unpopularity. The race to replace her is tight, and Democratic control of the legislature is also threatened. The Republican State Leadership Committee named Oregon one of its top targets, and local billionaire Phil Knight has invested at least $2 million in electing Republican legislators. Local experts consider the state Senate more flippable than the state House and have identified around six competitive seats. However, the House’s median seat is less blue than the Senate’s, and CNalysis thinks the House could change hands too. A tie is a real possibility too, since each chamber in Oregon has an even number of seats.

Three other currently divided states could conceivably fall under total Democratic or Republican control. After years of gerrymandering-fueled Republican dominance, Michigan finally has fair state-legislative maps this year thanks to the state’s new independent redistricting commission. As a result, Democrats have a real chance to win the state House for the first time since 2011 and the state Senate for the first time since 1984. According to AdImpact, $23 million had been spent on Michigan state-legislative races as of late September — more than any other state — and $18 million was from Democrats. With Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also likely to win reelection, a Democratic trifecta seems within reach. However, Republicans remain competitive in the legislature, and the GOP could gain complete control if the party can upset Whitmer.

Redistricting made the Pennsylvania state House more competitive, too; the new median seat has a partisan lean of R+4, just 1 point redder than the state as a whole. Democrats are targeting 14 districts, mainly in the suburbs, that President Biden would have carried in 2020. They need to flip 12 to end the majority Republicans have enjoyed since 2011. However, it would probably take a Democratic or Republican landslide to make Pennsylvania a one-party-rule state. That’s because Republicans are strongly favored to maintain their 28-year majority in the state Senate. Democrats would need to win every seat on the ballot with an R+6 partisan lean or bluer to tie the chamber (in which case the lieutenant governor would break ties). Conversely, it will be hard for Republicans to fully control the state because Democrats have a solid lead in the governor’s race.

Finally, in Minnesota, the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party currently controls the governorship and the state House, while Republicans hold the state Senate. All three could change hands this November, though the DFL is likelier than Republicans to take full control. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is comfortably favored to win reelection. But the legislature is a toss-up. There are as many as 20 competitive districts in the Senate (the DFL needs to flip only three to take control) and 27 in the House (Republicans need only four).

Where Republicans could take full control

Then there are three states currently under a divided government that Republicans could win all for themselves, but Democrats realistically can’t. 

Alaska would already be under total GOP control if moderate Republican and independent representatives didn’t form a coalition with Democrats to govern the state House. But with redistricting and retirements likely to result in a lot of turnover in Juneau, mainline Republicans are hoping to take back control. According to the Alaska Landmine, non-coalition Republicans are safe bets to win 19 out of the House’s 40 seats. Three more seats are competitive, and two more will likely elect Republicans who may or may not join the coalition. But some observers think the new maps and ranked-choice voting system could result in more legislators joining the coalition in the House — and maybe even forming one in the Senate.

In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s term runs through 2024. But Democrats don’t have a realistic path to a legislative majority. So Republicans could still have free rein to legislate if they pick up two seats in the state Senate and three in the state House. That would give the GOP a three-fifths majority in each chamber — enough to override Cooper’s vetoes. Cooper has issued a historic number of vetoes to kill bills related to voting, COVID-19, guns, protests and critical race theory. If Republicans win a supermajority, their leaders have said they would like to revisit some of those bills and pass more restrictions on abortion. In-state experts have identified eight to nine competitive districts in the state Senate and 19 to 20 in the state House. 

Wisconsin’s new state-legislative maps are also safely Republican, so control of Wisconsin state government will likely come down to the governor’s race. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is ever so slightly favored over Republican businessman Tim Michels. But Republicans could also take control by securing veto-proof majorities in the legislature (in this case, two-thirds of each chamber). That looks doable in the state Senate, where Republicans need only one more seat, but it’s more uncertain in the state Assembly, where they’ll need to flip five. Like Cooper, Evers has vetoed a historic number of bills — 126 during the last legislative session — on topics like election administration, education funding and guns.

Where Democrats could take full control

There is one state where Democrats can take complete control but Republicans can’t: Vermont. Republican Gov. Phil Scott is all but certain to get reelected, and Democrats’ state-legislative majorities are more than secure. However, there is a chance that Democrats could achieve the two-thirds majorities needed to override Scott’s vetoes without any third-party support. (There are currently a handful of state representatives not aligned with either major party.) Democrats already have 23 out of 30 seats in the state Senate and need to pick up just two seats in the state House to hit two-thirds. However, Republicans also hope they can gain five House seats to sustain Scott’s vetoes without third-party support. (They have a chance to whittle the Democratic supermajority in the state Senate as well.)

Where Republicans could break Democratic control

Two states currently controlled by one party could be reduced to a divided government this election cycle. In New Mexico, Republicans have a roughly 1-in-8 chance to defeat Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Still, they can’t take complete control because the Democratic-held state Senate isn’t up for election until 2024.

Meanwhile, Democrats are safe bets to hold onto the Colorado governor’s office. But the state legislature is in play thanks to an independent redistricting commission that appears to have gone out of its way to draw competitive seats. On paper, the state House is a tough but doable flip for Republicans; its median seat has a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of D+6. However, Democrats currently have a 17-seat majority, so in-state observers consider the state Senate a more realistic target. Out of the seven Senate districts that are competitive, Republicans will have to win six to take control. Some individual districts have seen as much as $4 million in campaign spending

Where Democrats could break Republican control

Republicans have enjoyed full control of Arizona state government since 2009, but their time may soon end. The governor’s race leans slightly toward the Republicans, and the GOP has just a two-seat majority in both the state Senate and the state House. However, redistricting made the Arizona state-legislative map friendlier to the GOP, so it will be hard for Democrats to win outright majorities. The Senate and House use the same map, with each district electing one senator and two representatives. In the state House, Democrats have adopted the controversial strategy of running just one candidate each in four key districts, ceding their shot at a majority to increase the odds of a tied chamber.

In New Hampshire, Republicans took complete control of state government after the 2020 elections, and Democrats are eager to flip them back. The 400-member state House is prone to wild swings from election to election: It went from a 225-175 Republican majority after 2016 to a 234-166 Democratic majority after 2018 to a 213-187 Republican majority after 2020.4 The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is also targeting the state Senate, but that will be more difficult. Democrats would have to win at least one district that former President Donald Trump carried in 2020 to gain a majority. Even if they manage that, they almost certainly won’t take complete control since Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is a solid bet to win reelection.

Despite Kansas having a Democratic governor, Republicans currently have full control of the Sunflower State because they have veto-proof majorities in the state legislature. However, Democrats need to flip only three Republican-held state House seats to break that supermajority. (The state Senate is not up for election this year.) Democrats are targeting districts Biden carried in 2020 in cities like Manhattan and Emporia and, especially, the Kansas City suburbs. But if they want to sustain Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes, they will also need Kelly to win reelection; she currently has a 3-in-5 chance of doing so.

Finally, there are three red states with safely Republican legislatures but where Democrats have an outside shot at breaking up a GOP monopoly by winning the governor’s office. The most realistic of these is Georgia, where Democratic former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams has a 1-in-10 chance of victory. Democrats have only about a 1-in-20 chance of flipping the governorships of Florida or Texas. And in Florida, Republicans have a path to a supermajority in the state legislature, allowing them to override a Democratic governor’s vetoes.

According to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, the most likely outcome of the 2022 election in Washington, D.C., is a split government, with Republicans controlling at least one chamber of Congress but Democrats still holding the White House. That could very well mean that the only policymaking of note for the next two years will take place on the state level. They may not get the same amount of attention, but these races for state legislature and governor are arguably more important ones on the ballot this year.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @baseballot

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