2015 State Elections

The handful of state elections in 2015 resulted in very little change to the state partisan landscape. Republicans maintained their historically strong hold on state governments.

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About the Authors
Tim Storey is the director of state services of the Denver, Colorado, based National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL. He specializes in the areas of legislative leadership, elections and redistricting as well as legislative organization and management. He staffed NCSL’s Redistricting and Elections Committee for more than 20 years and authored numerous articles on the topics of elections and redistricting. Every two years, he leads NCSL’s StateVote project to track and analyze legislative election results. He graduated from Mars Hill College in North Carolina and received a master’s degree from the University of Colorado’s Graduate School of Public Affairs.

Dan Diorio is a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures. In this role he serves as editor of The Canvass, NCSL’s monthly newsletter that summarizes complex election issues and trends. Diorio conducts research and analysis on election administration policy. Prior to joining NCSL, Dan worked in the Massachusetts Legislature, the United States Senate and for a private energy software company. and received a B.A. from Boston College.

State Partisan Landscape Mostly Unchanged after 2015 Odd-year Elections
The GOP remains the dominant party in control of state governments across the United States despite a couple of governor party control flips in the handful of 2015 state elections. Republicans control the most legislative chambers in the history of the party. Plus, they count 31 of the nation’s 50 governors among their ranks. The state elections of 2015 were essentially a stalemate, leaving Democrats to hope for a rebound in 2016 from disappointing results over the past six years and Republicans wondering if they can pad their sizable advantage in state policymaking. 

Only five states conducted regularly scheduled elections in 2015. Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia voters decided on all legislative seats. New Jersey held elections for the Assembly only; the state’s senators serve four-year terms and were all chosen in 2013. Three states held elections for governor: Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. 

None of the legislative elections led to a party control shift, and two of the governor’s mansions switched party control. Kentucky went from a Democrat to a Republican and Louisiana went from a Republican to a Democrat, thus cancelling each other out with regard to the national tally. This led to only one minor update to the overall partisan control of states. Headed into 2015 elections, Republicans controlled all of state government (governor, house and senate) in 23 states. Democrats held seven, and in 19 states, partisan control was divided with neither party having the “trifecta.” 

In an open governor’s race in Kentucky, voters handed the job from Democratic, term-limited incumbent Steve Beshear to Republican Matt Bevin. In the open gubernatorial race in Louisiana, Pelican State voters replaced term-limited Republican incumbent Bobby Jindal with Democrat John Bel Edwards. Kentucky remained a divided control state because the legislature is split control—the House is majority Democrat and the Senate is majority Republican. But in Louisiana, Republicans lost full control of state government by losing the governor’s seat, even though they retained control of both chambers of the Legislature.

With the lone party control shift in Louisiana, Republicans entered 2016 legislative sessions controlling all of state government in 22 states. Democrats held on to their seven, and the number of divided states ticked up to 20. Figure A shows the states where one party controls the legislature and governor’s seat, and the states where that control is divided.

Legislative Seats Up
In total, 535 state legislative seats were up for grabs in 2015, representing slightly more than 7 percent of the 7,383 seats in the 50 states. The outcome of the elections did not change the overall legislative partisan control map—Louisiana and Virginia stayed red, Mississippi got redder and New Jersey got bluer. Going into, and emerging from, the 2015 races, Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature in 30 states, matching their highest point in history set back in 1920. Democrats held the majority in both chambers of the legislature in 11 states, and eight states were split. In terms of individual legislative bodies, Republicans control 68 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers in the country. Nebraska has a unicameral lawmaking body whose members are chosen in nonpartisan elections.

Including the slight changes in 2015, there are more than 4,125 Republican state legislators in the country representing 56.4 percent of all state legislative seats. Fewer legislators (a total of 3,163) are serving today under the Democratic banner than at any point since 1928. Only 43.3 percent of partisan seats are held by Democrats. Twenty-four lawmakers are independent or from the Progressive Party, and the balance of the seats are either temporarily vacant or belong to the 49 nonpartisan senators in Nebraska. Heading into the 2015 campaign, the Virginia Senate, a 40-member chamber that has switched control three times in the past three years, appeared to be the most contested legislative chamber of the seven that were up for grabs. Republicans held the Virginia Senate 21 to 19, meaning that Democrats only needed to gain one seat to regain control of the chamber if they could get it to a 20-20 tie, since Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam would be the tie-breaking vote. In the end, the numbers and partisan control did not change. Republicans maintained the 21-19 majority despite the fact that of the six open seats where incumbents retired, four were GOP and only two were Democrats. 

While the bulk of the attention in the Old Dominion was on the Senate races in Virginia, every seat in the House of Delegates was also up for grabs. Republicans held a 67-33 majority in the 100-member chamber prior to Election Day and that didn’t change much. Despite losing one seat, the GOP maintained its dominance in the House by a 66-34 margin.

In Mississippi, Republicans increased their numbers in the 122-member House of Representatives even knocking off House Democratic leader, Bobby Moak, in the process. But on Election Day, they fell short of the 74 seats needed to gain a key supermajority. Under Mississippi law, spending, taxing and certain other measures require a three-fifths vote in the House and could only be enacted with Democratic support in the previous session. Shortly after the election, Democrat Rep. Jody Steverson announced that he was switching to the GOP, getting the party closer to a supermajority at 73-48 with one seat not determined because it had ended in a tie, each candidate receiving 4,589 votes. 

Incumbent Rep. Bo Eaton, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Mark Tullos emerged from a recount with a rarity in elections—an honest-to-goodness tie. Mississippi law requires tied elections to be determined “by lot,” so the candidates drew straws. Eaton won the drawing and was declared the winner. Tullos exercised his legal right to appeal the election results to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. When the House convened in January 2016, it invalidated five votes for Eaton and voted to seat Tullos, giving Republicans a supermajority of 74-48. Republicans only gained the majority four years ago in 2011 when they captured the Mississippi House for the first time in 130 years. Republicans also maintained control of the Mississippi Senate by a 32-20 margin. 

Louisiana held its “Cajun top-two primary” in October in which all candidates, Republicans, Democrats and others, run in the same primary. Under this system, if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the votes in the primary, they win. If no one receives more than 50 percent, the top-two vote getters meet in the runoff election in late November. Although all 39 state Senate seats and 105 House seats were up for election, more than 50 percent of the seats were uncontested, leaving only 70 seats for the primary—18 Senate and 52 House. When all was said and done, Republicans maintained their majority in both the House (61-42-2) and the Senate (25-14). 

In New Jersey, Democrats increased their majority in the Assembly by three to control the chamber 51-29. All Assembly districts in the Garden State are multimember where voters select two candidates. Democrats took over both seats in the formerly split District 1 and took out two GOP incumbents in District 11.

Governor Races Provided Some Excitement
Only three gubernatorial elections were decided in 2015—in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Louisiana governor’s race proved to be the one to watch. A tight contest between Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter and his Democratic challenger, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, went down to the wire on the Nov. 21 runoff. Bel Edwards pulled out a surprising upset over Vitter, replacing Republican Bobby Jindal who had held the post for the past eight years. Bel Edwards is one of three Democratic governors in the South along with West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The GOP gained a governor’s seat in the South to offset the loss in Louisiana when Republican Matt Bevin defeated Democrat Jack Conway to replace term-limited Steve Beshear in Kentucky. The Bluegrass State remains in the split column because Democrats hold the majority in the state House of Representatives. 

In Mississippi, incumbent Gov. Phil Bryant easily won re-election over Democratic challenger Robert Gray taking over 66 percent of the vote. In 2016, the partisan affiliation of the governors stands at 31 Republicans and 18 Democrats. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is the nation’s lone independent governor.

Kentucky House Stands as Last Democratic Chamber in the South
The past six years have seen large Republican gains in state legislatures across the country, primarily due to a Republican takeover over of legislatures in the South. Chambers that had been held by Democrats for over a century in states like Louisiana and Mississippi are now solidly in Republican hands; in fact, Republicans control both legislative chambers in every Southern state, except for one—the Kentucky House of Representatives. Figure B shows the steady gains made by Republicans in Southern state legislatures. They now control over 62 percent of all Southern legislative seats. Only 24 years ago in 1992, Democrats held the majority in every Southern legislative chamber. In late 2015, Democrats controlled the Kentucky House by a 54-46 margin. But by the end of December, two Democrats switched to the Republican Party, narrowing the Dems’ majority to 52-48. To make matters worse for Kentucky Democratic leaders, two Democratic House members resigned to take positions in the new administration of Gov. Matt Bevin and two Republicans resigned after winning election to executive positions, putting control at 50-46 in favor of the Democrats. These four vacancies created the possibility that Republicans
could take control of the Kentucky House in special elections in March 2016 and complete their takeover of Southern legislatures.  Democrats held on by winning three of the four special elections giving them a majority of 53-47. The Kentucky House will once again be a battleground in the 2016 elections. 

2016 Elections
After the 2014 elections, Republicans hit record highs in control of state legislatures. 2016 may be a challenge for the party as they defend major gains accomplished during the Obama administration.
And it is shaping up as an opportunity year for Democrats. Coattails will matter in 2016 with most voters focused on the race for the White House. The party of the winning presidential candidate
typically fares better in presidential years and gains seats—only eight times in the past 116 years has the president’s party lost state legislative seats in presidential election years. Voter turnout will
increase in 2016 and that will undoubtedly have an impact in many legislative races, but especially in the battles to control the more than 20 legislative chambers that are easily in play for both parties
in 2016.

Over 80 percent of legislative seats will be up for grabs in 2016 and there will be governors’ races in 12 states. Six states do not have legislative elections in 2016: Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia. In the other 44 states, there are 12 senates that would shift control if only three or fewer seats switched hands and eight state houses could shift if a net change of five seats occurs. The 2016 elections for legislatures could deliver a great deal of drama in terms of control of state policymaking, especially given that very few of the governors’ races are likely to be competitive. And with Washington stuck in the mud, states are leading now more than ever when it comes to tackling problems and innovating new policies, so these elections matter.

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