Ballotpedia releases 13th annual state legislative competitiveness report

Welcome to the Tuesday, September 24, Brew. 

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. State legislative competitiveness in 2023: Open seats, major party competition, and incumbents in contested primaries

State legislative competitiveness in 2023: Open seats, major party competition, and incumbents in contested primaries 

Every year, Ballotpedia publishes our State Legislative Competitiveness Report, a comprehensive look at competition in state legislative elections. This year, the 13th edition analyzed data in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia—the four states holding legislative elections in 2023. 

Our analysis of the 578 legislative elections occurring in this year’s off-cycle elections found the overall State Legislative Competitiveness Index declined from a decade high 30.8 in 2019 to 30.7 this year. The data show that 336, or 58%, of the legislative districts up for election this year have no major party competition. This is the largest number of races with no major party competition in an odd year since we began gathering data in 2011.

This analysis only includes odd years when all four states held elections (2011, 2015, 2019, and 2023). Lawmakers in Mississippi and Louisiana are elected to four-year terms

The average State Legislative Competitiveness Index for state legislative elections in even-numbered years between 2010 and 2022 is 34. In 2022, competitiveness reached 36.6—the highest level since 2010. We’ll take a closer look at competitiveness in even-numbered years in tomorrow’s edition. 

We use three criteria to determine state legislative competitiveness:

  • Open seats, those where no incumbents are running;
  • Incumbents in contested primaries; and,
  • Seats with major party competition, those contested between a Democratic and Republican candidate in the general election.

First, a word about our methodology. 

We average the three criteria—percentage of open seats, percentage of incumbents in contested primaries, and percentage of seats with major party competition—to produce a State Legislative Competitiveness Index, which can range from zero (least competitive) to 100 (most competitive). A higher index figure means a more contested and competitive election environment. This year, the nationwide index is 30.7. In 2019, the highest since 2011 in election cycles in which Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia held state legislative elections, the index reached 30.8. 

This year’s index score is lower than in 2019 because there were fewer head-to-head matchups between Republican and Democratic candidates and fewer incumbents facing contested primaries. The number of open seat contests is the largest since at least 2011.

Open seats

There are 138 open state legislative seats in 2023, meaning newcomers will win at least 24% of all seats. This is the most since we began gathering data in 2011. In even-numbered election cycles between 2010 and 2022, newcomers won an average of 19% of all state legislative seats.  

A greater number of open seats guarantees more newcomers entering legislatures and typically results in more candidates running for office. A smaller number of open seats guarantees fewer newcomers and typically results in fewer candidates running for office.

Term limits are one factor that can affect the number of open seats. Louisiana is the only state holding elections this year that limits legislators’ terms. Twenty-two Louisiana lawmakers are term-limited— seven state senators and 15 state representatives—this year, representing 4% of the 578 total seats up for election. There are fewer term-limited legislators this year than in 2019. In 2019, there were 47 term-limited state legislators.

Of the 138 open seats:

  • 62 are Democratic
  • 74 are Republican
  • Two are minor party or independent. 

Virginia has the most open seats with 44, followed by Louisiana (42), New Jersey (28), and Mississippi (24). In 2019, Louisiana had the most open seats with 60, followed by Mississippi (25), Virginia (16), and New Jersey (four). 

In Mississippi and New Jersey, 10-25% of seats are open, while in Louisiana and Virginia, 25-40% of seats are open.

Major party competition

This year, there are 336 (58%) state legislative seats — out of 578 up for election — that are uncontested and have no major party competition. In these races, voters will only see one major-party candidate (Democratic or Republican) on the ballot. This is the largest number of seats with no major party competition in an odd year since we began gathering data in 2011. Percentage wise, this is the second-largest since 2011, as the 2015 elections had 62% of seats (332 out of 538) without major party competition. 

In even-numbered election cycles between 2010 and 2022, an average of 39% of state legislative seats had no major party competition. 

Out of the 336 uncontested seats, Democrats are virtually guaranteed to win 137 (24%), while Republicans don’t face any Democrats in 199 (34%). This is the highest number of guaranteed Republican seats in an odd year since at least 2011. 

The total number of uncontested seats — 336 — is 12% more than the 301 seats that were uncontested in 2019, the last time Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia held elections. Virginia and New Jersey have more Democratic uncontested seats than Republican uncontested seats with 39-15 and 13-2, respectively. Mississippi and Louisiana have more Republican uncontested seats than Democratic uncontested seats with 100-48 and 82-37, respectively.

The absence of major party competition can effectively guarantee that one party wins the number of seats needed for a simple or veto-proof majority

Republicans are guaranteed a simple majority in four chambers across two states. Democrats are not guaranteed simple majorities in any chambers. 

In the Louisiana House, Republicans need 53 seats for a majority and are guaranteed 59, while in the Louisiana Senate, they need 20 seats and are guaranteed 23. In the Mississippi House, Republicans need 62 seats and are guaranteed 68, while in the Mississippi Senate, they need 27 seats and are guaranteed 32. 

There are 29 states where one party holds a veto-proof majority in both legislative chambers. Republicans control 20 and Democrats control nine.

Incumbents in contested primaries 

A primary is contested when there are more candidates running than nominations available. When this occurs, and an incumbent is present, it means the incumbent could possibly lose the primary. 

This year, 116 incumbents had contested primaries, representing 26% of all incumbents who ran for re-election. Sixty-seven were Republicans—the most in an odd year since we began gathering data in 2011. Forty-nine Democratic incumbents faced opponents. 

In odd years from 2011 to 2023, an average of 21.1% of incumbents were in contested primaries, compared to the average of 21.7% in even years between 2010 and 2022.

We’ll be back tomorrow to compare this year’s report to competitiveness in even-numbered election cycles. In the meanwhile, click the link below to read more about state legislative competitiveness in 2023.

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