Democrats Gain Ground in State Legislatures

Republicans retain a majority of seats in state legislatures, despite big Democratic gains.

Arkansas Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe will now deal with a Republican-majority state legislature. Bucking the national trend, Arkansas elected a GOP majority to its legislature for the first time since the 1870s.
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Even with more than two dozen races undecided, it is clear that Democrats made substantial gains in state capitols on Election Day.

In the 6,034 state legislative elections held yesterday, Democrats have thus far picked up over 170 seats, going from 3,294 of seats in state houses and senates before the election to 3,472, according to tabulations from the National Conference on State Legislatures, a bipartisan group that provides research and services to state legislators. However, Republicans still hold a majority of state legislative seats, with 3,795 at latest count. Twenty-seven seats still remain undecided, but Republicans will maintain their majority, regardless of what happens in those races.

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"It's still too early to say how many seats Democrats have netted, but they're clearly going to wind up netting seats in state legislatures," said Tim Storey, an elections expert at NCSL, in a call with reporters today.

He added that the Democrats' success at the state level is likely tied to Democrat wins at the top of the ticket.

"In 20 of the last 28 presidential election cycles, the party winning the White House has had coattails down at the grassroots level in state legislatures," he said. Last night's election results brought that count to 21 of 29.

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In three states, state legislatures changed party control completely. Arkansas made a historic switch, when both houses of its state legislature flipped from Democratic to Republican majorities yesterday. That will make the legislature in Little Rock Republican-controlled for the first time since the 1870s. Meanwhile, Maine and Minnesota's legislatures both went from fully Republican-controlled to Democratic.

Last night's election was also notable in reducing the number of state legislatures with split chambers. Now, it appears that only three states will have two chambers dominated by two different parties: Iowa, Kentucky, and New Hampshire (though in Virginia, the Senate is tied, 20-20, while the House maintains a heavy Republican majority).

The New Hampshire house changed hands last night--an important point because the unusually large, 400-person chamber has enough seats to sway nationwide totals. Democrats made huge gains in New Hampshire—while several races remain undecided, at latest count they had gone from 102 to 217 representatives in this election.

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Storey calls the newly Democratic New Hampshire house "maybe the biggest surprise of this election at the state legislative level," he says.

While state and national voting trends may trend together, broadly speaking, there were several cases of divergence. Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania all maintained their Republican legislatures despite also electing President Obama. And in Wisconsin, voters turned a split legislature over to the Republicans, even as they reelected the president.

Of course, there were plenty of close races. Storey stresses that plenty of these results could change in coming days if recounts end up changing outcomes.

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter @titonka or via E-mail at