The 9 state legislatures at play in the midterm elections

Experts and operatives representing both parties are watching nine states, where just a handful of legislative seats — in some cases, just a few hundred votes — could shift power from one side to the other.
The state Capitol building in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Democratic and Republican donors are throwing tens of millions of dollars at legislative candidates across the country as the two parties compete for control of critical state House and Senate chambers, highlighting the role legislators play in shaping national policy.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in Moore v. Harper, a case that could shift unprecedented power to the states, partisans on both sides are recognizing that the stakes for these races have never been higher.

“State legislatures are the most important part of American political life in many ways, and have been left to the worst actors. If you care about things, you care about state legislatures,” said Daniel Squadron, a former New York State senator who now runs The States Project, a group that says it will spend $60 million on behalf of Democratic candidates in several states. “There are razor thin margins across a wide swath of states in which every vote and every seat will matter.”

Most legislative chambers up for a vote this year are likely to remain safely in the hands of the party that currently holds control. Even in presidential battleground states Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin, Republicans hold safe and stable majorities.

But experts and operatives representing both parties are watching nine states, where just a handful of seats — in some cases, just a few hundred votes — could shift power from one side to the other.

Republicans find themselves playing more defense than are Democrats, a function of the sheer number of legislative chambers Republicans control going into Election Day.

“We’ve said from the state that our number one priority this year is defending our razor-thin majorities in states like Arizona, Michigan and New Hampshire,” said Andrew Romeo, communications director at the Republican State Leadership Committee. “That hasn’t changed as we come down the stretch, but we also continue to press the attack in Democrat strongholds to put us in position to capitalize in case everything breaks our way on Election Night.”

But, after a decade in minorities in most states, Democrats are cautious about early celebrations — and conscious of a national political environment that has turned against them in the closing weeks before the midterm elections.

“Republicans understand that state legislatures are their ticket to power, a truth they’ve known for some time,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee president Jessica Post wrote in a memo to reporters this month. “For far too long, Democrats have relied on a trickle-down strategy, hoping that money and attention for the federal level would simply trickle down the ballot. We know that isn’t the case.”

Here are the nine states to watch this November:

Alaska: There are more Republicans, 21, than Democrats, 15, in the state House, but Republicans don’t control the Speaker’s gavel. That’s because of a long-running feud between hardliner and moderate Republicans that split the party.

The result is the Alaska House Majority Coalition led by Speaker Louise Stutes, a Republican member of the coalition and the only candidate who could muster the 21 votes — including those of several Republicans — necessary to win control. Fifteen legislators are not seeking new terms this year, including eight Republicans; the GOP is likely to try again in January to wrest control of the speakership away from the coalition.

Arizona: Democrats came tantalizingly close to winning back the seats they needed to hold a majority in the state Senate in 2020. This year, Democratic-allied groups have spent almost $5 million to finish the job.

But it will be a tough slog ahead: President Biden carried 14 of the state’s 30 newly drawn legislative districts, according to data compiled exclusively for Pluribus News; in three of those districts, he scored less than 52% of the vote. That means Democrats will need to win every district Biden carried, as well as at least one of the four districts he narrowly lost. That’s a heavy lift in a midterm in which the national environment is tilting away from Biden’s party.

Colorado: Republicans see a narrow path to the majority in Colorado’s state Senate, where Democrats won control in the 2018 midterm elections. The GOP needs an additional four seats out of the 17 that are up for election this year.

But of the four districts that were closely divided between Biden and former President Donald Trump last year, only one features a Democratic incumbent, and three are held by Republicans. That means Republicans will need to reach deep into Democratic territory to find their way back to the majority, or wait until 2024, when the remaining 18 seats come up for election.

Maine: Democrats hold 77 of the 151 seats in Maine’s state House; eight more seats are vacant, and three are held by independents. Biden carried 81 districts as he carried the state by 9 points, but he won less than half the vote in three of those districts, and less than 52% in seven more.

Maine’s state House will see a substantial turnover regardless of the partisan outcome this year. More than a third of the members, 56 of 151, are not seeking a new term in November.

Michigan: Democrats and outside groups have spent more than $6.8 million in an effort to win control of the state House and Senate this year, and a massive fundraising advantage Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has built over her Republican rival is likely to help. Democrats need to gain a net of three seats to control the state Senate, and three seats to win back the state House.

Biden carried 50 state House districts in Michigan, forcing Democrats to play offense in some of the 14 districts where Biden scored at least 45% of the vote. The Senate picture is more hopeful for the minority party: Biden won 21 of 38 state Senate districts drawn by the state’s new independent redistricting committee.

Minnesota: Minnesota’s legislature is one of only two in the nation operating under divided control — Democrats hold a narrow three-seat majority in the state House, while Republicans control the barest one-seat majority in the state Senate.

Every seat in both chambers is up for election this year, following the decennial exercise in redistricting. Under new lines, Biden carried 36 of 67 state Senate seats, though there remains a path for Republicans to keep their majority; in four of those districts, Biden carried less than 52% of the vote.

Nevada: Democrats hold 12 of 21 seats in the state Senate, a chamber that flipped control in 2008, 2014 and 2016. Biden carried majorities in 13 of the 21 districts, though with less than 55% of the vote in five.

The Silver State has broken for Republicans on occasion in recent years, and close races for U.S. Senate and governor are likely to keep the battle for the legislature contentious.

New Hampshire: In 2020, New Hampshire’s state House and Senate were the only two legislative chambers in the country to flip control, with Republicans winning both majorities. The size of the state House — at 400 members, it is the second-largest legislative body in America, after the U.S. House of Representatives — makes it almost uniquely vulnerable to wave elections.

Democrats have designs on the state Senate, where Republicans hold 13 of 24 seats. Biden won 12 state Senate districts, but the state’s mapmakers seemingly designed new Senate districts with competition in mind. Biden and Trump finished within 4 points of each other in six districts. Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is likely to skate to re-election, but Democrats have the opportunity to complicate his next term.

Pennsylvania: Republicans are defending a narrow majority in the state Senate, where they hold 28 of 50 seats (an independent also caucuses with Republicans), and a broader majority in the state House, where they control 113 of 203 seats.

As in Michigan, the governor’s race is going to work in Democrats’ favor. Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) leads state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) by a wide margin.

Democratic groups have also poured more than $10 million into legislative contests, a larger amount than they have dedicated to any other state. Biden and Trump each carried 25 state Senate districts, though one district — in the always-contentious Montgomery County — backed Biden by a margin of just 140 votes out of 150,000 cast.

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Alaska’s state House Speaker. The speaker is Rep. Louise Stutes (R).