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Democrats Chip Away At GOP State Control

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Republicans have dominated statehouse politics around the country for most of the last decade, winning more governor races and controlling far more state legislatures. But after this month's midterm election, Democrats got a stronger foothold in a lot of states. As grueling campaign cycles grind away the spirit of bipartisanship, North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports states may start looking very different.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Republican state Senator Betty Little stepped to the podium in Queensbury, N.Y., election night, she was grinning, triumphant.

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BETTY LITTLE: It's great to win an election. I can't tell you how great it is.

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MANN: But as the night went on, Little, who represents a rural area of upstate New York, sounded more subdued. She watched the rest of the Republican Party's powerful Senate majority get destroyed by voters in the suburbs and Long Island.

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LITTLE: Oh, I'm certain that a lot of things will change because we won't be in charge of the legislation that comes on the floor. You know, this is who the people chose.

MANN: For the first time in a decade, Democrats now control both chambers of New York's legislature and the governor's office - what's known in politics as the trifecta. It didn't just happen here. Nationwide, Democrats nearly doubled the number of state capitals, to a total of 14, that they control entirely.

ALAN GREENBLATT: There's the cliche about states - that they're the laboratories of democracy, that ideas get tried out there. We now have red labs and blue labs. And they're going to be moving in very different ways.

MANN: Alan Greenblatt is a reporter for Governing Magazine. He says the biggest trend nationwide isn't red to blue. The biggest trend is toward more states with one-party rule. The good news is that most state capitals won't suffer the kind of gridlock that's frozen Washington. But as Republicans and Democrats push their agendas without the need for bipartisanship, states could look more and more different on everything from abortion and taxes to the protections afforded immigrants.

GREENBLATT: People living in California and Oregon are going to have, in a lot of ways, a very different set of laws that they're living under than people in Alabama and Arkansas and Missouri.

MANN: There are just 13 states left in the whole country where the two parties share power. And there are huge policy divides, especially on big budget things like healthcare and education. Democrat Jared Polis will be the new governor in Colorado, which also saw its state senate flip red to blue.

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JARED POLIS: Well, it's really a historic opportunity that the voters have given to Democrats, to me, to produce. Can we save families money on health care? Can we expand kindergarten to be full-day for every child in the state?

MANN: Historically, Republicans have treated state-level races more seriously. But Alan Greenblatt says this election reflected a clear turnabout for Democrats, who invested more money and worked harder to recruit candidates. As a result, Democrats nationwide elected roughly 350 new state legislators and saw a net gain of seven governors. Greenblatt thinks statehouses will grow as political battlegrounds in 2020.

GREENBLATT: Democrats have slowly woken up to that fact that legislatures provide kind of the farm team of people who are going to run for Congress. They handle redistricting in most states. They become important venues for issues like abortion, voting and marijuana legalization and tax rates and on down the list.

MANN: Republicans did gain one-party control in one state - Alaska. But they lost trifecta power in four other states - Kansas, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin - bringing their total down to 23. This month's election did produce one other historic trend. A lot more LGBT candidates were elected to state houses, almost all of them Democrats. Colorado's Jared Polis will be the first openly gay governor in the country. Women and people of color also posted historic wins. For the first time ever, New York's state Senate will be led by an African-American woman - Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANYONS OF STATIC'S "THE DISAPPEARANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.