Democratic gains bring 'trifecta' in 14 states

Iowa remains among 22 states were GOP controls agenda

Iowa state Rep. Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, prepares to speak last Tuesday at an Iowa GOP election night watch party at
Iowa state Rep. Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, prepares to speak last Tuesday at an Iowa GOP election night watch party at the Hilton Des Moines Downtown Hotel. Iowa House Republicans agreed Friday to keep her on as House speaker as the GOP retained control over the state lawmaking agenda in Iowa. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Republicans maintained their control over the state lawmaking agenda in Iowa in last week’s elections, but Democrats staged a power surge in many other governor’s offices and statehouses across the nation, boosting a host of progressive priorities including health care, school spending, gun control, environmental protection and voting rights at the state level — even as divided government threatens gridlock in Washington.

In at least seven states, Democratic governors succeed Republicans. And the party flipped at least 350 state legislative seats from red to blue.

During the eight-year Obama administration, Democrats lost nearly 900 state legislative seats, allowing Republicans in many states — including Iowa — to cut state taxes, restrict access to abortion and stiffen voter ID laws with little Democratic resistance.

The policy changes will look especially dramatic in states where Democrats will now control all the levers of power or have legislative “supermajorities.” Democrats soon will hold the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers in Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York and Nevada, bringing the total number of Democratic state “trifectas” to 14.

Democrats shattered Republican trifectas with their gubernatorial victories in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin, and by winning control of the New Hampshire House and Senate.

In Iowa, Democrats fell short of the 10 seats they needed to convert to win control of the Iowa House and claim at least one portion of state government. In Iowa House races, Democrats flipped five seats and claimed two vacancies that previously were held by Republicans.

That leaves Iowa among the 22 states where Republicans hold the trifecta of power — the governorship, the state Senate and the state House.


There are only 13 states where the two legislative chambers are controlled by one party and the governor is from the other. And for the first time since 1914, there is only one state — Minnesota — where the legislature is split. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature.)

While the divided Congress may struggle to advance legislation over the next two years, one-party rule at the state level sets states up to get things done.

“You have red states and blue states and you can expect (winning party candidates) to act the way they ran,” said Tim Storey, director of state services at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Democrats ran on the environment, education funding and health care.”

Last Friday, Iowa House and Iowa Senate Republicans chose to keep the same top leaders from last year and continue to pursue the “big and bold” agenda that propelled them though this election.

Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, and Chris Hagenow, R-Urbandale, will continue as Iowa House speaker and Iowa House majority leader, respectively. And Ankeny Sen. Jack Whitver and West Des Moines Sen. Charles Schneider will stay on as Iowa Senate majority leader and Iowa Senate president, respectively.

Now that Washington-style partisanship has seeped into statehouses, a trifecta may be necessary to get much done — whether the state is controlled by Democrats or by Republicans.

“In this highly polarized partisan environment,” said Carl Klarner, a former Indiana State University political science associate professor and political consultant, “a party needs to control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office to significantly change the direction of policy.”

The election results also may spur more clashes between states and the Trump administration. Democratic state attorneys general have been a significant check on the president’s power, using lawsuits to block dozens of administration initiatives.


Now that Democrats have flipped attorney general offices in Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin, they will control 27 of the nation’s 51 attorney general offices next year, including the District of Columbia.


In Colorado, Democrats not only achieved a trifecta but also elected a Democratic attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — roles that historically have been held by Republicans even when Democrats controlled the legislature and governor’s office, said Robert Duffy, a professor of political science at Colorado State University.

He said he expects the newly Democratic-controlled government in Colorado to try to solve thorny transportation and education funding problems, do more to regulate oil and gas development and pass a so-called red flag law, which allows police to temporarily remove guns from someone who could pose a threat to himself or others.

In his acceptance speech Tuesday night, Gov.-elect Jared Polis said he already was working on bipartisan legislation to create a full-day kindergarten program in Colorado.

However, Duffy said, it may be difficult for Democrats to fund their priorities because Colorado has constitutional limits on raising taxes.

In Nevada, Democrat Steve Sisolak’s win in the gubernatorial election also created a trifecta.

Though outgoing Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is moderate, there could be a major shift on gun control, according to Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Sandoval vetoed several gun control measures, while Sisolak was chair of the Clark County Commission when the Las Vegas mass shooting occurred, “so there’s a personal dimension there,” Herzik said.

In Wisconsin, national labor leaders cheered the defeat of anti-union Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “Scott Walker was a national disgrace,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in his official statement.


But Walker’s successor, schools superintendent Tony Evers, faces a fully Republican legislature that’s already brainstorming ways to reduce his power, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

In Maine, which also became a Democratic trifecta state, Gov.-elect Janet Mills said she’ll move ahead with Medicaid expansion. Voters approved the policy in 2017, but GOP Gov. Paul LePage would not implement it. Wisconsin’s Evers and Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly also support Medicaid expansion.

New Democratic attorneys general in Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin are expected to team with their left-leaning peers around the country to sue the Trump administration over regulatory rollbacks, immigration restrictions and other policies they oppose.

Colorado State University’s Duffy said he expects Phil Weiser, that state’s newly elected attorney general, to pull the state out of ongoing lawsuits that his Republican predecessor joined, such as the suit 24 Republican attorneys general brought against the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a policy that limited power plant emissions.

The governorship of Florida remains up in the air after a machine recount was ordered Saturday.

Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and provided by Reuters, contributed to this report.

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