State Legislatures Start Off as a Mixed Bag

With the round-the-clock coverage of the presidential election, there’s little to no attention being paid to the imperative down ballot state legislative elections which determine what laws are going to be passed in your state. That’s where we, CNalysis, come in — we are casting predictions for over 5,000 single-member state legislative districts across the country. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats had a net gain of over 300 state legislative seats nationwide as Democrats across the country came out to show their distaste with President Trump’s job performance. In 2020 however, things are looking like more of a mixed bag.

Currently, in our forecast, Democrats look like they’re going to have a net loss of seats in lower chambers but a net gain in the upper chambers. This is mostly because of the decline of the traditional “blue dog Democrat:” Democrats who represent rural, white working-class districts that traditionally vote for Republicans at the top of the ballot, but vote for Democrats down ballot. Many of these Democrats are retiring this year as a result of the geographical coalition realignment we’ve seen throughout the 2010s in our elections: Democrats losing seats in rural territory, but gaining in urban and suburban territory.

Even when including the multi-member district lower chambers not in our forecast (NH, AZ, ND, SD), it still looks like Democrats are going to lose seats in these legislative bodies. Of course, we are still a long ways away from the election, so our forecast could get better for Democrats as we get closer to November. One thing is for certain though: Democrats will not have the impressive net gain in these state legislative seats like they had in 2018, when they had a net gain of 65 seats in State Senates and a net gain of 240 in State Houses, according to my count.

Currently, in the State Senates, Democrats look like they’ll have a net gain of 11 seats this year. This net gain is derived from staggered terms in several of these chambers, as well as Republican retirements in competitive districts. Republicans derive their current projected net gain of 9 seats from rapid electoral trends in rural, heavily white districts. Most of these projected flips to Republicans are in districts where there’s an incumbent Democrat retiring and/or districts that were unopposed in 2018.

So all in all, things look pretty even in our forecast in terms of a total state legislative seat net gain nationwide, which Republicans would be satisfied with after losing so much ground in the midterms. If we had to pick who is most likely to have the net gain in all state legislative seats, it would be Republicans. This is due to multi-member district State Houses in the Dakotas and New Hampshire, where Republicans will likely pick up seats. The most important thing for Democrats as they try and regain power in the states though is, of course, control over state legislative chambers themselves and state governments. You can read more about their opportunities in state government “trifecta” opportunities in my first piece here.