Key state legislature races favor Republicans despite massive Democratic spending

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

State legislatures are often overlooked in the heat of campaign season, yet the laws crafted there have as much impact, if not more, on the average person’s everyday life as the ones passed by Congress.

But for many Americans, ignoring elections for state legislatures is no longer an option. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer has them focused on state capitols, where abortion laws are now being decided.

State legislatures also have a significant role in certifying the results of an election in most states. Certifying election results has been largely devoid of drama in the past, but that changed in 2020, when Republicans in a few states tried to send fake electors to Congress through state legislators.

Donald Trump

But while Democrats are still trying to mobilize their efforts around state legislatures, controlling them has been a leading GOP focus for over a decade. Republicans launched an effort to take power in statehouses in the years leading up to the 2010 midterm elections, which in many cases allowed them to redraw congressional districts in their favor after that year’s census.

And the GOP’s long-term effort is still paying off. Republicans currently control 30 state legislatures to just 17 for Democrats, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. In addition, the GOP has control of 23 governorships in states where they also hold the legislature, which is referred to as a “trifecta.” Democrats have just 14 trifectas.

It doesn’t appear that Democrats will improve these numbers all that much this year.

Democrats told Yahoo News a year ago that they plan to make an organized push to elect more members of their party to state legislatures. And two outside groups are spending around $80 million to do so this cycle.

But so far, there has been little payoff for Democrats. Only 10 chambers out of 99 across the country were deemed to be competitive several months ago by one analyst, and that number has likely shrunk, according to the latest ratings.

Voting signs
An early voting location in Atlanta. (Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Furthermore, of the 10 competitive chambers, only three are Republican-controlled, and the other seven are held by Democrats, meaning they are mostly playing defense.

Of the top five closest chambers, as ranked by CNalysis, four are currently held by Democrats and risk switching to Republican control. These four are the Maine House, the Minnesota House, the Alaska House and — somewhat shockingly — the Oregon Senate.

“Oregon is going to be interesting,” CNalysis executive director Chaz Nuttycombe told Yahoo News. The race for Oregon governor is tilting toward Republican candidate Christine Drazan, and CNalysis even gives Republicans a 26% chance of taking the House there, along with a 39% chance of either winning control of the state Senate or gaining a tie in the upper chamber.

In other words, the prospect of Republicans gaining complete control of state government in deep-blue Oregon — where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 16 points in 2020 — is plausible, though still an uphill climb for the GOP.

For Democrats, their biggest opportunity to take a chamber from Republicans is in Michigan, where the state Senate is up for grabs.

Here, Nuttycombe predicted that he thinks Democrats will fall short. They need to flip just three seats, but he thinks they won’t win them all. CNalysis rates Democratic chances of taking the Michigan Senate at 39%.

Kari Lake
Kari Lake, Republican candidate for governor of Arizona. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

When it comes to threats to democracy from election deniers, the biggest one likely resides in Arizona, where control of the Legislature looks to be firmly in Republican hands already and unlikely to change, according to CNalysis.

In Arizona, Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem are two of the most blatant and aggressive promoters of Trump’s “big lie” that he was cheated in 2020.

It is likely that legal avenues to chicanery by those Republicans in Arizona, as well as other states, will be drastically limited if and when Congress passes a reform to the Electoral Count Act later this year.

The ECA reform package would clarify vagaries in the law that give bad actors room to meddle with election results, and would give federal courts the final word in disputes over voting totals.

But Democratic outside groups are also spending tens of millions of dollars with a focus on the Arizona Senate and Michigan Senate.

If Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wins a second term, that would give Democrats a bulwark against any post-election chicanery in the state Legislature.

In the Michigan Senate, six districts are ranked as toss-ups. There are eight races for the Maine House ranked as toss-ups by CNalysis. At least another 11 seats are competitive.

In the Minnesota House, there are 11 toss-ups, while another six seats look competitive.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivering remarks in Detroit. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

CNalysis sees only three toss-ups in Alaska House elections. In the Oregon Senate, CNalysis rates four races as competitive.

If Republicans won the majority in the Maine House, that would deprive Democrats of full control of the Legislature. Like Oregon, Maine is one of the 14 states where Democrats currently have a trifecta: control of the House, Senate and governorship.

In Minnesota, if Republicans win the House, that would give them full control of the Legislature, as long as they keep the Senate.

The biggest threat to a Republican trifecta may be in Oklahoma, where incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt is facing a stiff challenge from Democratic challenger Joy Hofmeister.

But Republicans may pick up a trifecta in Kansas, where they already control the Legislature and are trying to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, whom Politico ranked as the “most vulnerable incumbent on the ballot this year.”

Over the summer, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a Republican attempt to allow the state Legislature to restrict abortion, giving Kelly’s supporters hope. But she’s still in a close race with Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

“There will be a bill in the Kansas Legislature, no doubt, to impose greater restrictions [on abortion],” Kelly told the New York Times recently. “If I’m in office, it can be vetoed. If my opponent is in office, it’ll become law.”