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The (Updated) Battle for the Statehouses

A Commentary By Louis Jacobson

Chambers in key swing states like Michigan and Nevada get more competitive.


— In what we expect to be our final pre-election look at the nation’s legislatures, we are shifting our ratings for 7 chambers. We are moving 5 chambers in the Democrats’ direction, while 2 move in the Republicans’ direction.

— It’s important not to read too much into the imbalance in these shifts favoring the Democrats. The shifts reflect 2 major changes in the political environment since our last handicapping, which was published in May: the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, and GOP primaries that anointed polarizing candidates aligned with former President Donald Trump for key top-of-the-ballot contests.

— Overall, the landscape for competitive state legislative chambers this year is fairly neutral, with Republicans playing defense in 7 of the 15 chambers we see as competitive and Democrats playing defense in 8. The Toss-up category includes 7 chambers, 3 currently held by Republicans and 4 held by Democrats.

— Several of the key battleground states with high-profile statewide races also have competitive legislative chambers, such as Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada.

State legislative chambers to watch

In the 5 months since we last handicapped the nation’s state legislative chambers, a lot has happened in the political universe.

What seemed like a massing Republican wave, fed by widespread disenchantment with President Joe Biden, now seems like a more mixed environment. While the historical patterns continue to favor the out-of-power party — in this case the GOP — that tendency is now somewhat balanced by Democratic dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the abortion decision Roe vs. Wade, as well as the choices by Republican primary voters to choose strong supporters of former President Donald Trump in many statewide races, a development that could turn off independents and moderate Republicans and reverberate down to legislative contests.

Given the changes in the political environment — which we had noted in our initial handicapping as possibilities for aiding Democrats — we are shifting our ratings for 7 chambers. In what we expect to be our final pre-election handicapping of the nation’s legislatures, we are moving 5 chambers in the Democrats’ direction, while 2 move in the Republicans’ direction.

Democratic chances have improved in both chambers in Arizona, as well as the Michigan, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania Houses, although only the Arizona and Michigan Senates are Toss-ups (the Republicans are favored in the others). Meanwhile, Republican chances have improved in both chambers in Nevada, with the Senate becoming a Toss-up and the Democrats retaining an edge in the House.

It’s important not to over-read into our shifts to the Democrats as evidence of an emerging blue wave. These changes mainly involve chambers that we had considered uncompetitive under a red wave scenario but are now at least theoretically competitive given the changed environment.

It’s also worth noting that we are not shifting every GOP-held chamber in a battleground state toward the Democrats. We continue to rate both chambers in Georgia, North Carolina, and Wisconsin as Likely Republican or better, along with the New Hampshire Senate and the Pennsylvania Senate. And chambers in such states as Florida and Iowa that have been at least somewhat competitive in recent history continue to be uncompetitive this cycle. Even a blue wave would be insufficient to flip any of these chambers.

This represents the 11th cycle I have handicapped state legislature control, dating back to the 2002 cycle. (Previous versions have been published in the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, Stateline.org, and Governing magazine.) The analysis is based on interviews with state and national political sources.

We rate chambers on the following scale: Safe Republican, Likely Republican, Leans Republican, Toss-up, Leans Democratic, Likely Democratic, and Safe Democratic. The categories labeled “Lean” and “Toss-up” are considered competitive or in play. “Likely” chambers aren’t expected to shift partisan control, but they could see seat gains by the minority party or are marginally less solid than “Safe” for the majority party.

In all, the rating changes in this round of handicapping bump up the number of competitive chambers from the 10 we saw in May to 15 now. In addition, the current partisan breakdown of vulnerable chambers is more equal. In May, we saw 7 Democratic chambers as competitive, compared to just 3 for Republicans. Now, we see 8 Democratic-held chambers as competitive, with almost as many Republican-held chambers — 7 — in play.

The crucial Toss-up category has also expanded since May and has become more evenly balanced by party. Three Republican-held chambers now rate as Toss-ups: the Arizona Senate and the Michigan House and Senate. Four Democratic-held chambers now rate as Toss-ups: the Maine House and Senate; the Minnesota House; and the Nevada Senate.

Meanwhile, 5 chambers are in our Leans Republican category. One is Democratic-held, and thus leans toward a flip: the Alaska House. (Control of the Alaska House is difficult to characterize: It has a coalition leadership with a breakaway Republican speaker and a Democratic majority leader, even though Republicans nominally control more seats. We’re considering it Democratic-controlled for the purpose of this analysis.)

The other 4 Leans Republican chambers are currently held by the GOP: the Arizona House, the Minnesota Senate, the New Hampshire House, and the Pennsylvania House.

Finally, we rate 3 chambers as Leans Democratic: the Colorado Senate, Nevada Assembly, and Oregon Senate.

Table 1: Most competitive state legislative chambers

The total number of competitive chambers this year is relatively modest compared to recent history, and the 2 parties are playing roughly the same level of defense, in contrast to recent cycles, when the GOP has had the heavier burden of vulnerable chambers heading into Election Day.

Our final pre-election handicapping of the 2020 cycle found more competitive chambers — 20, compared to 15 today — with the Republicans holding three-quarters of them.

And in our final handicapping of the 2018 cycle, we found 17 competitive chambers. Almost two-thirds were held by Republicans.

In other words, the competitive landscape for legislative control in 2022 is smaller and less tilted against Republicans than in recent cycles.

Currently, the GOP controls 61 legislative chambers while the Democrats control 37 chambers. (We’re counting the Alaska House as Democratic. Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, which is nonpartisan, isn’t included in this count.)

Despite the GOP’s modest gains in 2020, when they flipped both chambers in New Hampshire, and 2021, when they flipped the Virginia House, the GOP still controls fewer chambers than the 65 they held prior to the 2018 election. And that was down from the 68 chambers the GOP held just before the 2016 election.

That said, the GOP has maintained a consistent edge in state legislative chambers for more than 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 following the 2010 census and the slow but permanent loss of yellow-dog Democratic chambers in the South. We’ll see what impact the post-2020 redistricting, including the increased number of states with nonpartisan or bipartisan systems, has on state legislative elections this year.

To see the makeup of each chamber, take a look at this table from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Map 1 also shows the current party control of state legislatures.

Map 1: Current party control of state legislatures

Below are the states that have at least one legislative chamber in play this year — in the Leans or Toss-up categories. Ratings for other states have not changed since our last analysis in May, and ratings for noncompetitive chambers can all be found there.


Senate: Likely R

House: Leans R (flip)

No change

For several years, the Alaska House has been run by a cross-partisan coalition. These have often been narrow and fragile; it took weeks of negotiations in 2021 to settle on a leadership lineup. A combination of retirements by coalition members, along with growing strength in the GOP’s most conservative wing, now puts the coalition at risk. The state’s historical Republican leaning suggests that the GOP might finally be able to break free of coalition control by next year, but that won’t be known until well after the election, even if Republicans gain a numerical majority. Alaska legislative politics right now is focusing on whether Republican candidates should pledge to vote for “full” permanent fund dividends — the annual royalty check to residents from state investments — irrespective of fiscal constraints next year. Many legislative Republicans side with Democrats on this question, calling such a pledge fiscally irresponsible.


Senate: Likely R to Toss-up

House: Likely R to Leans R

Two rating changes, favoring Democrats

In our previous handicapping, we were swayed by the changes made by the state’s independent redistricting panel, which likely helped the GOP’s prospects on the margins. But Arizona has become one of the major battlegrounds of the 2022 midterms, with highly competitive races that pit mainstream Democrats against Trump-aligned Republicans in contests for U.S. Senate, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. It remains unclear whether GOP voters and independents will ultimately prefer the hardline Republican ticket to pulling the lever for Democrats, but the chance that Arizona voters will support Democrats for higher-level offices — including the potential that abortion-rights supporters will be energized by the fear of tight restrictions if the GOP keeps a gubernatorial and legislative trifecta — moves us to shift both chambers from likely Republican to more competitive categories.

Currently, the Arizona Senate has a 16-14 Republican majority, so Democrats would only need to flip one seat, on net, to move into a tie. Their best option may be in a seat where redistricting pitted 2 incumbents: Republican Nancy Barto and Democrat Christine Marsh.

About half the new district comes from Marsh’s old district, while a quarter comes from Barto’s. The Republicans in the district are relatively moderate, which helps Marsh, considering Barto’s conservative record on social issues, including sponsoring a 15-week abortion ban that was signed into law by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. Independents also tend to lean liberal in the new district.

Meanwhile, Democrats also have at least 3 other Republican-held seats that could flip to Democrats if the party has a strong night. These races are in Maricopa County, which has been trending purple in recent years.

The Arizona House, currently 31-29 Republican, is a better shot to remain in the GOP’s hands, though with a continued narrow margin likely.

Complicating matters is Arizona’s unusual legislative structure. The state has 30 legislative districts, each with 1 senator and 2 representatives. As Ray Stern of the Arizona Republic has explained, the state Democratic Party decided to “single-shot” some of the competitive races, fielding just 6 candidates for 10 open House seats. “The thinking goes that having only one candidate from the party increases the chances a Democrat will win at least one seat,” Stern wrote. “If all six Democrats win a seat, they would tie the House at 30-30 members for next year’s session. Conversely, losing just one means Democrats lose the House.”


Senate: Leans D

House: Likely D

No change

Colorado has shifted towards the Democrats in recent elections, and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis is on track to win comfortably. While Colorado Republicans generally nominated mainstream candidates in the primary, unlike GOP voters in other states, the Democrats maintain the edge in both chambers. The lines are favorable to Democrats, especially in the House.


Senate: Toss-up

House: Toss-up

No change

Maine, which is hosting a hard-fought gubernatorial contest between incumbent Democrat Janet Mills and former GOP Gov. Paul LePage, is one of the GOP’s prime opportunities for a legislative takeover. The openness to ticket-splitting, both in New England generally and Maine specifically, could produce a flipped legislative chamber or 2, even if Mills pulls out her reelection. Not much has changed since our last handicapping, so we’re keeping both chambers at Toss-up.


Senate: Toss-up 

House: Leans R to Toss-up

One rating change, favoring Democrats

Like Arizona, Michigan’s closely watched top-of-the-ticket battles pit relatively mainstream Democrats against Trump-aligned Republicans, against a backdrop of a potentially sharp curtailment of abortion rights. But unlike in Arizona, there has been clear Democratic momentum up and down the ballot in Michigan. In addition, the maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission improved Democratic prospects compared to the GOP-drawn maps that had prevailed during the previous decade and produced the current Republican control in both chambers. The Senate was already a Toss-up in our ratings, but the Democratic energy and spending advantage has led us to shift the House to Toss-up as well.


Senate: Leans R

House: Toss-up

No change

Minnesota is the rare state in recent years that has had a partisan split in state legislative control. The Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief that Gov. Tim Walz (D) has an edge in his reelection race. Even so, the margins are narrow enough that both of Minnesota’s chambers will be in play this year; the GOP hopes to flip the House, while the Democrats would like to flip the Senate.


Senate: Leans D to Toss-up

Assembly: Likely D to Leans D

Two rating changes, favoring Republicans

During our initial handicapping, we focused on the state’s new legislative lines, which were drawn by the Democratic legislature and are slightly more favorable to Democrats in both chambers than the existing maps. That’s still the case, but since then, Nevada has become one of the GOP’s prime opportunities for gains in the midterm elections, up and down the ballot. Republicans feel more optimistic about their chances of flipping a chamber in Nevada than they do in either Colorado or Oregon, 2 other western states with competitive, Democratic-held legislatures.


Senate: Likely R

House: Likely R to Leans R

One rating change, favoring Democrats

Compared to our prior handicapping, Democrats have become more optimistic in New Hampshire, due to a combination of abortion-rights energy and the nomination of Trump-aligned candidates for U.S. House and Senate contests. Gov. Chris Sununu (R), while still a heavy favorite to win reelection, is expected to see somewhat eroded margins compared to 2020, which could have some down-ballot impact for the GOP.

Of the 2 chambers, the state’s enormous House chamber is more likely to flip, given its history of large partisan swings, so we’re moving it to Leans Republican. But taking control of either chamber remains a longshot for Democrats, given a favorable redistricting crafted by the GOP.


Senate: Leans D

House: Likely D

No change

Oregon has become a bigger-than-expected headache for Democrats, with a tight, 3-way gubernatorial race and several competitive U.S. House contests. The state Senate — currently with 18 Democrats, 11 Republicans, and one independent — is the likelier chamber to flip. Money is pouring into about a half-dozen key Senate races, especially from Republicans. It’s possible that the GOP could gain a few seats in the Senate even if they fall short of a majority.


Senate: Likely R

House: Likely R to Leans R

One rating change, favoring Democrats

Legislative redistricting modestly benefited Democrats in Pennsylvania, but our initial take is shifting due to subsequent events. Beyond the overturning of Roe vs. Wade energizing Democrats, Pennsylvania is also playing host to a gubernatorial contest in which Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro leads Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano by double digits, amid defections by some establishment Republicans. This could help Democrats in legislative contests, at least on the margins. The lines in the Senate are considered too favorable to Republicans to make the chamber competitive this year. Democrats could see gains in the House, however.

Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the forthcoming Almanac of American Politics 2024. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.

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See Other Commentaries by Louis Jacobson.

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