The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats now govern more Americans at the state level than Republicans

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II (D) arrive at an election night party at MotorCity Casino Hotel on Nov. 9 in Detroit. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The 2022 election was more or less a status-quo election. But the small shifts had some rather significant consequences. House Republicans’ nine-seat gain was modest, compared with midterms over the past century, but it was enough for the party to reclaim the chamber. And in the Senate, Democrats surprised most everyone by actually gaining a seat and solidifying what had been the barest of majorities, in a way that could prove very useful.

But perhaps nowhere were small, targeted victories as key as they were in the battle for state government. As in the Senate, Democrats notched important victories that allowed them to expand their control, despite an environment that narrowly tilted in the GOP’s favor.

And in the end, Democrats are now in better shape in state government than at any point since the 2010 election — for a couple reasons.

Overall, the battle for state legislative seats was almost a complete wash. Republicans gained about two dozen seats out of 6,000 that were contested — a shift of less than one-half of 1 percent. But despite Republicans winning slightly more seats overall, it was Democrats who were able to flip chambers. They took over four: both chambers in Michigan, the Pennsylvania state House and the Minnesota state Senate.

Michigan and Minnesota were particularly significant because those flips, when combined with Democratic governors winning reelection, handed Democrats complete control of those states. Democrats also gained the “trifecta” — i.e. control of both chambers and the governorship — in Maryland and Massachusetts by winning governor’s races.

They did lose a trifecta in Nevada, but they also took a trifecta from the GOP by winning the Arizona governor’s race. Democrats also won reelection in crucial governor’s contests in Kansas and Wisconsin, which deprived Republicans of potential trifectas.

So while Republicans controlled 23 states to Democrats’ 14 before the election, the split will now be more narrowly in the GOP’s favor: 22-17.

That’s the best split Democrats have seen since before the 2010 election. That was the last time Democrats controlled a majority of states, by a 16-9 margin. (Split state governments used to be a lot more common, as you can see on the chart below. The decline of split states owes to our increasingly polarized country, but also to increasingly effective gerrymandering of state legislatures.)

Today, unlike back then, Democrats are still operating at a significant deficit in the overall numbers — not just in terms of states controlled (22-17), but also in total seats (more than 4,000 to fewer than 3,300), overall chambers controlled (58-41) and governorships (26-24).

But that actually undersells how much control they have. That’s because they now control the governing decisions over more Americans than Republicans do.

The total population of the states with Democratic trifectas will now be north of 140 million (about 42 percent of all Americans) compared with about 131 million for Republicans (39 percent). That’s an improvement on Democrats’ pre-election deficit of 138 million to 115 million. The reason: Now-split Arizona and the four states over which Democrats gained control are all relatively populous.

It’s also a very far cry from where Democrats were just a few short years ago. Before the 2018 election, Republicans controlled more than three times as many states: 25 to just seven for the Democrats.

This was mostly the result of a brutal 2014 election for the Democrats — we wrote at the time that the GOP was in its best position in state governments since the Great Depression — and things didn’t get much better for the blue team in 2016 despite having won the popular vote for president.

Going into the 2018 election, those 25 states meant Republicans had full control of the government in states accounting for 155 million Americans — compared with less than 64 million for Democrats.

The huge Democratic deficit has been erased a little more than four years later, thanks to two good elections for Democrats in 2018 and 2020, and now, to some well-placed wins in a tight 2022 election.

Correction: This post initially stated incorrectly that Democrats had won the Minnesota state House. It was the state Senate.

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