2016 State Elections
Voters left the overall partisan landscape in state legislatures relatively unchanged in 2016, despite a tumultuous campaign for the presidency. The GOP remains firmly in control of legislatures. Their overall ranks grew slightly in the 2015 and 2016 elections allowing the party to reach new historic heights. Democrats saw modest gains in Western states that were offset by Republican success in the Midwest and South.
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.
Republicans Maintain Strong Advantage in State Legislatures
The 2016 elections were the culmination of hard fought campaigns from the top of the ticket on down. Legislative candidates from both parties nervously watched the race for the White House not knowing exactly how it might affect Republicans’ grip on state legislatures. In the end, as in 21 of the past 29 presidential election cycles, the party of the winning presidential candidate, Republican Donald Trump, eked out a modest net gain in state legislative seats.
Despite the seismic change that Donald Trump’s victory meant for Washington, D.C., voters did not deliver major change to the partisan landscape in the states. Republicans will continue to set the policy agenda in most state legislatures and now have a federal government run by Republicans to work with in Washington.
In the end, it was a low-change election in the states with only eight chambers changing hands, well below the average of 12 chambers that normally switch each cycle. This undoubtedly came as a relief for GOP leaders who feared losses on Election Day with Hillary Clinton leading in nearly every poll.
Democrats were expecting a repeat of their performance in the last presidential cycle in 2012 when their turnout ticked up and they won back legislative seats and chambers lost in the massive Republican wave of 2010. However, it was Republicans who celebrated after reaching yet another high-water mark of state legislative control. Republicans now control both chambers of the legislature in 32 states. More legislatures are in the hands of Republicans than at any previous point in American history. Furthermore, post-election tallies left the GOP controlling more chambers and legislative seats than since the 1920 election when Warren G. Harding carried the Republican banner.
Democrats have majorities in both the house and senate in 14 states. Only three states have split control, the lowest number of split legislatures since 1944. Colorado and Maine are two of the split-control states where Republicans control the senate and Democrats the house. Connecticut is the third because the Senate is tied with Democrats still in charge of the House. The Nebraska state legislature is both unicameral and nonpartisan, so it is not reflected in these partisan control numbers although it is widely recognized as being aligned with the GOP.
This tally of majority control of legislative bodies is based on the partisan composition of seats, not considering the handful of minority party led leadership coalitions that exist in several chambers. This allows for consistent historic comparison with comprehensive partisan composition data dating back to the founding of each state.
Entering the election, Republicans held 67 of the 98 partisan chambers in the country, while Democrats held 31. In 30 states, Republicans controlled both chambers of the legislature, and Democrats controlled both chambers in 12 states. In seven states, control was split between the two parties. Of the 7,383 legislative seats, Republicans held approximately 56 percent of seats to Democrats 44 percent going into the 2016 November election.
Republicans now have the majority in 66 legislative chambers, Democrats in 31. The Connecticut Senate is tied 18 D, 18 R and is the only tied legislative body in the nation. Legislative seat totals tell a similar story. Republicans hold more than 4,170 legislative seats—that’s 57.1 percent of the all seats and the most for the party since 1920.
Below Average Chamber Turnover in 2016
On average since 1900, party control has switched in 13 state legislative chambers every two years. The changes in the 2016 cycle were 38 percent below that average. A mere eight chambers changed hands in the 2016 election cycle (including legislative elections in 2015). Four chambers went toward the Democrats, and four moved toward Republicans.
Republicans completely took over the South by gaining a majority in the Kentucky House of Representatives after falling just short in 2014. Prior to election night in November, the Kentucky House was the last remaining Democratically-controlled chamber in the South. Democrats had run the Bluegrass state’s House of Representatives for the past 94 years. And when Republicans finally won the chamber after that long time in the minority, they did it in a big way, picking up a whopping 17 seats and giving them a commanding majority in the chamber—64 of 100 seats. Kentucky was one of the strongest states for Donald Trump; his popularity and strong support for the coal industry made it smooth sailing for Republican candidates up and down the ballot. Republicans knocked off sitting Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo in his home district.
With the victory in the Kentucky House, the GOP finalized a 26-year takeover of legislatures in the South. All 30 southern legislative chambers are now in GOP hands, a complete reversal from 1992, when all Southern chambers were under Democratic control. The party also reached historic highs in total seats in the region and now holds almost two-thirds of all legislative seats in the region.
In addition to the historic Kentucky shift, Republicans won the majority in the Iowa Senate for the first time in a decade, gaining five seats to control the chamber 29 R, 20 D, 1 Ind. Iowa was another state where Trump performed well. Furthermore, Iowa is the state with the highest percentage of white, working-class voters—the key to the Trump’s surprising win in the electoral college. The Iowa GOP had the added satisfaction of taking out longtime Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Mike Gronstal, in the process. Republican upstart Dan Dawson beat Gronstal, who had been majority leader for over a decade and was the chair of the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, by nearly 10 percent.
Minnesota was among the bigger surprises on election night. Republicans engineered an unlikely takeover of the Senate gaining a narrow 34 R, 33 D majority for 2017. The North Star State Senate is one of the most competitive in the country, changing hands in three of the last four elections.
The final loss for Democrats, although not a full victory for Republicans, came in Connecticut where Republicans went from being in a 21 D, 15 R minority to an 18 D, 18 R tie in the Senate. The body decided on a power sharing agreement that includes co-leaders. Democrats retained functional control because the lieutenant governor, a Democrat, breaks all ties.
In the 2016 election, Republicans won back the White House consolidating control of the federal government under GOP control for the first time since 2009. Despite the bad news for Democrats at the national level, they had a few bright spots in state elections. Strong Latino turnout helped Democrats gain seats in Western states and take back control in three Southwestern legislative chambers.
In Nevada, Democrats literally reversed the numbers in both chambers. They entered the election in the minority in both Silver State chambers down 11 R, 10 D in the Senate and 27 R, 15 D in the Assembly. Post-election, the numbers remained 11 D, 10 R and 27 D, 15 R but with Democrats owning the bigger number. One GOP senator switched to independent after the election making the final party composition in the Senate 11 D, 9 R, 1 Ind. For the first time in the state’s history both chambers will be led by African-Americans: Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson.
In New Mexico, Democrats won back the House that had been in GOP hands for two years taking a 38 D, 32 R majority. Prior to the 2014 election, Democrats had controlled the New Mexico House for the previous 60 years.
Lastly, the brightest spot for Democrats might have been in Hawaii. The party now holds all 25 seats in the Aloha State Senate. This is the first time a chamber has been completely controlled by one party since 1980, when both the Alabama and Louisiana Senates were entirely Democratic.
In Washington, Democrats gained one Senate seat to earn back a numerical majority in the chamber 25 D, 24 R; however, Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon continued to caucus with Republicans in a coalition giving the GOP full functional control of the Washington Senate.
On paper, Democrats also appear to have a numerical majority in the New York Senate. Yet, once again, the Empire State Senate will be run by a coalition that’s led by Republicans. That is because a small group of senators who were listed on the general election ballot as Democrats got elected and then joined the “Independent Democratic Caucus” that allies with Republicans to give the GOP control over the Senate.
Conversely, Democrats benefited from a coalition in the Alaska House despite only having 17 seats in the 40-member chamber. Two Republicans and two Independents joined the minority party Democrats to take control of that chamber away from the GOP. They elected Democrat Bryce Edgmon as the new speaker.
Republicans Slightly Increase Total State Government Control—the Ballyhooed “Trifecta”
Republicans slightly increased their total number of governorships in 2016. They now have a record number of “trifectas” where they hold the governor, house and senate. Before the election, there were 22 fully Republican controlled states, eight fully Democratic states and 19 states where the power was shared. Republicans fully controlled 24 states when legislative sessions began in 2017. Seven states were completely in Democratic hands and in 18 states power was divided between the two parties. And even though Nebraska is technically a nonpartisan legislature, most observers consider the state to be Republican, so the GOP tally could be considered as even larger.
On election night, Republican voters put Missouri and New Hampshire into the fully R column with wins by gubernatorial candidates and flipped Vermont to the split column—no surprise to those who know the Green Mountain State has a history of electing Republican governors. But the incumbent Republican governor in North Carolina lost to a Democratic challenger also moving that state to the split column.
Number of Women Legislators Serving Hits All-Time High, but Still Below 25 Percent
Election Day was not quite the historic event for women that many hoped it would be or expected. While the number of women serving in state legislatures grew slightly, it was virtually unchanged from before the election.
In 2016, there were 1,805 women legislators representing 24.4 percent of all state legislators. In 2017, 1,830 women legislators were sworn in representing a slight increase to 24.7 percent of all legislators. While remaining far below the percent of women in the U.S. population, the number represents an all-time high for women serving in legislatures.
Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Vermont and Washington continue to lead the nation in the highest percentages of women serving (35-46 percent) while Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming are at the low end with under 14 percent.
2016 was mostly a stalemate election for partisan control of states leaving the GOP with an historic edge in the states for at least the next two years. The odd year 2017 legislative elections will see a larger spotlight begin to focus on state elections because it is the first election cycle that will set the table for redistricting after the 2020 census. In fact, the Virginia governor to-be-elected in 2017 will either sign or veto redistricting legislation to redraw state legislative as well as U.S. House seats for the Old Dominion. A significant cause of Republican success over the past several elections has been the big victories scored by the GOP in the pivotal pre-redistricting election of 2010. Democrats will be looking to avoid a repeat of their 2010 nightmare in 2020 and have already begun to mobilize efforts surrounding the 2020 redistricting cycle. The 2017 elections for the Virginia legislature and governor could offer an early sign of whether voters approve of the leadership of President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.
State elections in 2018 will be vitally important for the next decade’s redistricting as well as for the direction of state policy in what is emerging as a new era of federalism. Republicans know that they have their work cut out for them. In 27 of the past 29 midterm elections, the party of the president has lost state legislative seats—a troubling trend for the GOP.