What’s the deal with political trifectas?


Nathaniel Rakich: In November 2022, Democrats achieved the trifecta in four states. No, they didn’t get lucky on the track – although they did win a different kind of horse race: they won three elections that determined control of the state government. And that sort of trifecta is worth more than a winning ticket: It gives political parties the chance to turn their state into a conservative or liberal haven. So, what’s the deal with the state-government trifectas?

A state-government trifecta is when the same party controls the governorship, state senate, and state house in a particular state. And since all three agencies approve new laws in a state, a trifecta gives one party complete control over the governing process—the unfettered power to pass any law.

Until around 2010 though, the trifecta didn’t get much attention. About half the states had them, and even where they existed, the parties often had enough internal disagreements that they couldn’t pass super-transformative legislation. But that year, a more ideologically coherent Republican Party won 11 new state-government trifectas, and it quickly exploited them.

In states like Texas and Tennessee, Republicans passed voter-ID laws making it harder to vote. Republicans in states like Michigan and Wisconsin have cracked down on labor unions by making it harder to bargain collectively or allow workers to opt out of union dues. And Republicans in states like Kansas and Oklahoma have moved to restrict abortion by banning it after 20 weeks or barring private insurance plans from covering it.

But the trifecta has also been a powerful tool for Democrats. In the 2017 and 2018 elections, the party won eight new trifectas and launched new liberal policies. Colorado funded universal full-day kindergarten. Illinois becomes first state to abolish cash bail. Several states have raised the minimum wage.

As state politics has become nationalized, states are increasingly choosing the same party to fill every role in government — meaning the number of trifectas has increased. Today, 39 of the 50 states have one – 22 Republican, 17 Democratic. Parties have never had the broad scope to experiment with ultra-conservative or liberal policies. This year alone, states are considering using public funds to pay for private schools, loosening third-trimester abortion bans, banning public drag shows and legalizing psychedelic mushrooms.

Not all of these things will pass, but it’s clear that Republicans and Democrats are doing their best to transform the states they control into bastions of conservative and liberal rule. And as a result, your daily life can feel very different depending on whether you live in a red or blue state. We are one country, but increasingly, we experience two different Americas.