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The more things change, the more things…

High Detail American election background

Watching the national news, you would never know there were other elections of consequence taking place on November 3. Such is the lot for races that are not national in scope. At best you may have heard an update on one of the eleven gubernatorial races taking place, but often it was merely as a proxy to how the state would turn out for the presidential election. However, as this is a decennial year, the consequences of these state elections have the potential to outlast the full tenure of a president.


Every ten years, the nation updates its population figures as part of the decennial census. This change in population often necessitates an update of all state and federal offices with representative districts, know as a reapportionment. The most notable offices affected include the U.S. House of Representatives, both upper and lower chambers of state legislatures and districts within a county and city. 

The reapportionment of districts is implemented by the state. The party in power has the position to exert the most influence this process – thereby making 2020 far more than “just a presidential election year.”

State Control

Going into the 2020 general election, Republicans controlled both chambers of 29 state legislatures while Democrats controlled 19. Only one legislature, Minnesota, split the chambers between the parties. When you overlay total state control where one party has both chambers and the governor’s office, aka “Trifecta,” that number changes to 21 states for Republicans and 15 for Democrats. The remaining 13 states divided partisan control between the legislative and executive branches.

At this point in time, it is important to note for the mathematically inclined that the above numbers only add up to 49 states. As an incentive to read the rest of the article, I give the reason at the end.  But I digress. 

By itself, the opportunity to redraw the district lines that will impact elections for the next decade is enough to warrant a serious campaign. However, couple that with the race to occupy the presidency and you have an election that is guaranteed to drive record turnout and break election spending records.

Entering the election cycle, state Democrats ran dual campaigns that attempted to close the Republican-state advantage, while at the same time influence federal contests. To do this, the chambers of 13 states were identified as targets. These states included Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

2020 Elections

Election pundits by and large were predicting strong down ballot alignment throughout all the prospective races. Meaning the top of the ticket, in this case the presidential race, would strongly influence what voters did with the rest of their ballot. Also, conventional wisdom of presidential election voting habits suggested there should be state turnover. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an average of 12 chambers change parties in each general election cycle.

The media’s reporting of strong polling numbers for the Biden campaign, and Democrats overall, led to predictions of a “blue wave,” particularly for state and federal partisan races. This election outlook bolstered expectations for Democratic gains going into November. However, similar to the outcome of the federal races, state races saw Republicans make gains and Democrats hold on to the aggregate number of seats flipped in previous races.

Starting with the least contentious, there were 11 gubernatorial races nationwide.  While none of the incumbents were seriously challenged, Republicans won the two open seats in Montana and Utah. These pick-ups were a net gain for Republicans bringing executive control to 27 states compared to the 23 controlled by Democrats.

In state legislatures, Republicans flipped both chambers of the New Hampshire, bringing their total of legislatures to 30 states over the 18 held by Democrats.  Minnesota remains the lone state legislature with control split between the parties. This downward trend in chamber turnover is consistent with the last three election cycles dating back to 2016.

Finally, for trifecta control, Republicans enjoy a net gain of two states, bringing their total to 23 with the addition of New Hampshire and Montana.  Democrats hold at 15 states, with the remaining 11 states under divided control.

What Does All This Mean?

First and foremost, the threat of down ballot uniformity proved widely exaggerated. Looking at the states that former Vice President Biden won, or was winning – Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – the ticket was split with voters giving the state legislature to Republicans. In the case of Minnesota, a state that was heavily targeted by Democrats and elevated due to the civil unrest of the summer, it maintains its split legislature.

For the rental housing industry, we must not fall prey to election-year red state and blue state rhetoric. While much will be written on the polling that guided, or misguided, the messaging used by the campaigns, the postmortem is clear – that it is not as clear cut as the parties make it out to be. Battleground states earn that designation because their moderated views make them open to persuasion. The idea that voters will tow a single brand of messaging will be reassessed. This opportunity for message diversity bodes well for our industry.

Second, the Coronavirus is still king and will continue to drive the narrative of the country – especially in the states.  Remember, irrespective of your state’s partisanship, eviction moratoriums were an equal opportunity policy. It is important to note that the governors up for reelection were given high marks for their response to the virus, leaving very little for their opponents to use against them. Also, several states saw their revenues plummet and budget surpluses drop due to the response to the virus. With the expected rise in cases during the winter months, states will once again be put in a position to make tough decisions.

For the rental housing industry, it will again be about advocating for a balanced approach that does not put the entire cost and responsibility of housing the nation on one industry. At the same time, we will need to guard against the activist community’s tactic of using the emergency response to the virus to influence long-term housing policy.

At the end of each election cycle there is always a clear winner. Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the United State House of Representatives, famously  said “All Politics is Local.” While he was not on the ballot, his philosophy was and won – proving once again that it doesn’t matter how big the race, the successful ones are waged at the “retail” level. It was true for the state races and it should be true for our industry.

As always, let me know what you think at [email protected].

*Answer: The Nebraska legislature is officially nonpartisan unicameral body.