A Wave or a Ripple: October/November 2012 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE

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With more than 6,000 state legislative seats up for grabs, the 2012 election will determine control when the legislatures convene next year to deal with a plethora of issues.

By Tim Storey

The bruising battle for the White House between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has consumed virtually all the media’s attention. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on TV, radio and Internet ads targeted at specific groups of voters in about a dozen states. The race will be at the top of most people’s minds when they vote on Nov. 6.

The contests for more than 6,000 state legislative seats have garnered far less attention. That does not, however, mean they are less important. Far from it. Those thousands of races will determine the party control of legislatures when they convene next year to tackle tough issues—concerns the vast majority of Americans feel Washington, D.C., has failed to address.

And if history is any guide, the party who wins the White House will likely claim more victories in state legislative races as well.

Neither presidential candidate looks poised to deliver a knock-out punch on election day. Contrast that to the races in 2006 and 2008, when it was fairly clear by late fall that Democrats were on track for major legislative gains. The same was true for Republicans in 2010, when they walloped Democrats at the ballot box, picking up more than 700 legislative seats.

Enthusiasm in both parties is lagging well behind where it was in 2008 and 2010. In fact, most voters just want the election to be over, according to Democratic pollster Peter Hart. That may be good news for Republicans who currently hold a distinct advantage in control of legislatures.


What’s at Stake

This year’s election is the first to follow the once-a-decade redrawing of district boundaries based on new census data. In addition to creating a more unpredictable electoral landscape, redistricting also increases the number of seats normally up for election. That’s because a few states require contests for all senate seats in the first election after redistricting, then re-stagger the terms in subsequent elections.

Eighty-two percent of all legislative seats are up for grabs on Nov. 6. That’s more than 6,030 contests in 44 states. All 85 seats are up in Puerto Rico, as well as 15 senate seats each in the unicameral legislatures in Guam and the Virgin Islands.

The only states not holding legislative elections are Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia. They conduct state elections in odd-numbered years. All lawmakers in Alabama and Maryland, as well as senators in Michigan, are elected to four-year terms. Since they were chosen in 2010, they won’t face elections this year either.

For the past 10 years, the number of state legislative seats remained steady at 7,382. But that will change after the election when the New York Senate will grow from 62 to 63 because of redistricting. It’s the only legislature changing size this redistricting cycle, which is unusual. It has been more common, at least since the 1960s, for at least three or four state legislatures to adjust their size after the Census.

Currently, among the governors, 29 are Republicans, 20 are Democrats and one is an independent. Only 11 of them are up for election this year, and the strong consensus among political analysts is that only three states have contests that are truly toss-ups: Montana, New Hampshire and Washington. So the fight to control state governments will be mostly in the legislative arena.

GOP Starts Ahead

To say that the 2010 election was a good one for Republicans would be a massive understatement. It was one of their best elections in decades and continued one of the strongest trends in American politics: The president’s party usually loses legislative seats in mid-term elections. Republicans picked up 720 seats in 2010, and Democrats lost control of 23 legislative chambers.

The GOP successes in legislative races over the past two years may be their biggest hurdle headed into the 2012 election. At such a high water mark, with more Republican legislators now than at any point since 1930, it may be hard to climb much higher.

Currently, 3,979 state legislators are Republicans—a little less than 55 percent of all partisan seats. (Nebraska elects its 49 lawmakers on a nonpartisan basis.) Fewer than 20 legislators are independent or from a third party. This 55 percent to 45 percent GOP advantage is the mirror opposite of the partisan breakdown before the 2010 election when Democrats held 55 percent of the seats.

Republicans also have a pronounced advantage in their control of chambers and all segments of state governments. Fifty-nine of the 98 partisan legislative chambers have Republican majorities. Democrats control 36 chambers. Three are tied—the Alaska Senate, Oregon House and Virginia Senate. In Virginia, Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling serves as the tie-breaking vote, giving the GOP functional control of that chamber. In the Alaska Senate, a bipartisan coalition runs the show. In the Oregon House, leadership is divided between co-speakers and co-chairs.
Finally, there are 26 state legislatures with both chambers under GOP control and 15 in the Democrat’s column.

States to Watch

A shift of only a few seats can make a big difference. In every two-year election cycle, an average of 13 chambers switch parties. Two changes have already occurred. Republicans won the Mississippi House in 2011 for the first time since reconstruction. The Virginia Senate went from Democratic control to a tied chamber, which, because the Republican lieutenant governor casts tie-breaking votes, gives functional control to the Republicans.

While there will certainly be some surprises and unexpected party control shifts, only 20 chambers have a likely chance of switching. Eleven state senates are within three seats of changing majorities, and nine houses are within five seats. That is down from 24 close chambers in 2010 and 28 in 2008.

Not all of those “close on paper” chambers are likely to change hands. “Redistricting has helped the GOP protect its gains in several chambers in potentially competitive states,” says Lou Jacobson, a freelance reporter who handicaps legislative elections for various publications. “The lack of a strong partisan tide in either direction suggests that we won’t see a big swing in control like we saw two years ago.” Jacobson sees only eight chambers as true toss-ups: Both chambers in Arkansas, the Colorado House, the Iowa Senate, the Minnesota House, the Nevada Senate, the New York Senate and the Washington Senate.

Perhaps the most interesting state to watch will be Arkansas. The Natural State represents the last toehold of Democratic control in the South. Democrats have held the Arkansas Senate and House since the elections of 1874. Heading into this election, Democrats control the Senate by a slim 20-15 margin and the House by 54-46. After a steady and consistent shift in the region toward the GOP, only the two chambers in Arkansas and the Kentucky House remain in the D column.


Coattails Are Consistent

Since 1900, in 20 of 28 presidential elections, the party winning the White House has also netted state legislative seats. Many factors, including the mood of the country and the ability of each side to bring out their voters, play a role. Legislative control in many of the hotly contested states this year will likely come down to a handful of races. And those could hinge on what happens in the race for president, especially in the presidential battleground states of Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota and Nevada.

“Get out the vote” efforts by the presidential campaigns and stronger enthusiasm for one party over the other are likely to be the tipping points this year, says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia. “In 2008, Democrats had higher levels of enthusiasm, by a mile, and better organization in most key states,” he says. “In 2012 there’s a split. Republicans have greater enthusiasm by most standard polling measures, but the Obama team still has a big leg up on organization in many swing states.” Sabato emphasizes that enthusiasm and organization “will make a huge difference down the ballot in the thousands of races to determine control of legislatures.”


The Turnover Factor

Which way the political scales will tip after Nov. 6 is less clear this year than in the recent past. One thing is certain, though: There will be many new lawmakers in state capitols come January. In the first election following redistricting, turnover is always high. While other elections average turnover rates between 17 percent and 18 percent (factoring in all 50 states), in the 2002 election following redistricting, turnover reached 24 percent. All signs point to at least that level in 2012, if not higher. The turnover rate is already 24.5 percent in 35 states that held primaries through mid-August, factoring in retirements.

An expected increase in turnover in 2012 would not necessarily be noteworthy except that it comes on the heels of an unusually high turnover in 2010 of just under 25 percent. Combine that with the high rates anticipated this year, and it’s likely that approximately half of all state legislators will have served for two years or less at the start of 2013 legislative sessions. These two elections will most certainly result in the highest rate of turnover in state legislatures in the last 50 years.


All About the Economy

Political operatives do not see eye to eye on much, but they usually agree on which issues will have the greatest impact on elections. This year, once again, it’s all about the economy. Ed Goeas, head of the national Republican polling firm The Tarrance Group, believes even traditional state issues like education will be seen through an “economic prism.” He says all his polling at the state and national levels shows that “voters are almost solely focused on the economy.” He points out that one of every two voters under age 30 are considered “under-employed” and are asking hard questions of President Obama.

Andrew Myers, head of Myers Research and Strategic Polling, which works with many Democratic state legislative candidates, agrees the economy is the “top issue.” But he believes voters will support Democrats who are “increasingly concerned about the quality of schools and the ability of the U.S. to compete long term.”

A recent NCSL survey found many states beginning to see more stable budget situations. Most of the state budget officers surveyed, however, were quick to point out how cautious they still feel. Looming expenses with state pensions and other deferred spending from several difficult years make it hard for them to be enthusiastically optimistic.

The wave of new legislators elected in November will bring a burst of fresh ideas and energy to state capitols. That may be just what is needed as they face some very daunting dilemmas begging for better solutions.

Tim Storey directs NCSL’s Leaders’ Center and is the NCSL expert on legislative elections.