By Mark Wolf
Los Angeles—Heading into the 2018 midterm election, America is as politically polarized as it’s been in decades.
For the first time in history, every U.S. Senate race in 2016 mirrored the presidential results in that state, Tim Storey, quoting the Cook Political Report, told a session previewing the November elections during NCSL’s Legislative Summit.
And in legislatures, “we are living in a world of GOP dominated by the GOP,” said Storey, NCSL’s legislative elections expert. “Democrats are down to 43 percent of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats.”
While Republicans hold their most dominant state control advantage ever, history shows that the party out of presidential power almost always gains state legislative seats in the first mid-term election.
The only exceptions, Storey said, were in 1932 during the Depression when Democrats gained over 1,000 seats under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 2002 when Republicans made gains under George W. Bush as the country ramped up for war in Iraq.
The average mid-term loss by the president’s party: 412 seats.
“There will be a wave, but will it be a big wave or a small wave?” Storey said.
Storey said 13 chambers in 11 states—Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Washington, New York, Maine—comprise the legislative battlegrounds in 2018.
“That is relatively fewer than normal,” he said, because the Republican advantage is so strong in so many states.
President Donald Trump’s popularity will likely have a significant impact on the legislative election landscape.
“Steve Rogers, a professor at St. Louis University, has done some fascinating academic research that says the approval rating of the president has three times the effect on legislative races rather than anything the legislature has done,” said Storey.
Trump is the only president whose approval rate has never cracked 50 percent in the 75 years Gallup has tracked that number, Storey said, and stood at 41.3 percent at the end of last week according to fivethirtyeight.com.
Democrats also hold about a seven point lead in generic congressional polls, which would translate to a gain for them of more than 500 legislative seats based on historic patterns.
Storey cited a number of reasons for optimism for each party. For the Democrats, besides the mid-term history, the party has more challengers than ever before including a record number of women, more enthusiasm as evidenced by primary turnout, they have won 24 special elections and flipped the Washington Senate, and the president’s low approval rating.
Republicans, Storey said, can be buoyed by strong economic data including the 4.1 percent growth in gross domestic product during the second quarter, low unemployment, the stock market being up 16 percent over the last 12 months and a surge in consumer confidence and spending since Trump was elected. And while Trump’s approval will likely be a drag, the president can motivate and turn out voters by speaking to his base through Twitter and appearances on Fox News.
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.