With a dysfunctional federal government, states are where the action is, making for high stakes in legislative races.
By Morgan Cullen and Tim Storey
A trend in American politics nearly as consistent as the sun rising in the East is that the party holding the White House takes it on the proverbial chin every four years in midterm elections. That’s why Republicans are optimistic, and Democrats are working harder than ever to buck history.
In the past 114 years, there have been 28 midterm (between presidential) elections. In 26 of those, the party holding the presidency lost an average of 415 seats, or 5.6 percent, of all state legislative seats nationwide. The extent of the losses, however, has varied widely. The worst defeat for any party, in any election since the Civil War, was in 1922, when Republican Warren Harding lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. His party lost 1,749 legislative seats.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the two lone occasions when voters rewarded the president’s party in midterm elections. The first was in 1934 when the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt was two years into his first term. Democrats gained 1,108 legislative seats that time. The second occasion was in 2002, when George W. Bush was in the White House and the nation was poised for war with Iraq. Republicans that year pulled off the history-defying trick of netting 175 seats.
This year, voters are extremely frustrated with the dysfunction of the federal government, yet most observers believe the current gridlock is unlikely to improve following the election. In fact, it could get even worse, although that’s hard to imagine. All this increases the stakes in state elections, as state legislators continue to make the big policy decisions of the day.
Whose Year Is It?
In the last midterm election cycle in 2010, a massive Republican wave swept over the state political landscape and the party wound up in their best position in more than six decades. Republicans netted an historic 725 legislative seats and wrested control of 21 chambers—the biggest shift since the Great Depression. Democrats, with President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, recovered only a little of that territory in 2012, gaining a modest 150 seats. And, although the Democrats won back eight chambers that were lost in 2010, they lost another five.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Republicans in 2014 is that they enter the November election in such a dominant position in legislatures that it might be difficult for the pendulum to swing any further toward the GOP. The low-hanging fruit is gone.
Currently, out of a total of 7,383 state legislators, 3,836 are Republicans, 3,448 are Democrats and 26 are third-party lawmakers. Nebraska has 49 nonpartisan senators, and the remaining seats are vacant. In 27 states, Republicans control both chambers of the legislature; Democrats do so in 19 states. Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire are the only states where legislative control is split. Having only three divided legislatures is unusual; the last time was in 1946.
Republicans hold majorities in 57 legislative chambers, Democrats in 41. (That adds up to only 98 chambers because Nebraska has only one chamber and members of it are elected on a nonpartisan basis.) When factoring in GOP-leaning coalitions that control the New York and Washington Senates despite the fact that Democrats hold numerical majorities, the picture becomes even rosier for the GOP. The “effective” Republican chamber advantage then grows to 59-39. Before 2010, the Democrats held a 62-36 lead in chambers.
Given that the state legislative map is decidedly more red than blue heading into this midterm election, further Republican gains might be challenging, even with history on their side. But that’s not slowing down their efforts.
“Republicans are absolutely on offense in 2014,” says Jill Bader, of the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization charged with electing Republican down-ballot, state-level office holders. “We have a solid ground game in place and have identified 16 chambers across the country where Republicans can win a clear majority.”
Neither Party Wants to Play Defense
Democrats are not content to play defense. In fact, “they are poised to make gains this cycle,” Michael Sargeant, executive director for the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said in a press release in early July. “No doubt about it,” he said, citing strong candidate recruitment efforts and the Democrats’ fabled advantage in campaign field operations because of their large army of volunteers and a database of voters Republicans are still trying to emulate. His belief that Democrats will gain seats is strengthened by the fact that at least six GOP-held chambers could switch with a gain of just three or fewer seats: the Arkansas and Iowa houses, and the Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Senates.
Whether Democrats can hold the line, or even pick up a chamber or two, as they face the headwinds of history depends on whether this election is a GOP wave or just a ripple. Political scholars have coalesced around the notion that this year’s election is not shaping up as one that will have a seismic shift toward either party. Amy Walter, the national political editor for the Cook Political Report, is one of many pundits who has noted, “Since very early in this cycle, both sides have conceded that 2014 will not be a ‘wave’ election like we saw in 2006, 2008 or 2010.”
Republicans are counting on strong anti-Obama sentiment among their base voters, something elections scholars refer to as “the enthusiasm gap,” to build the wave. And if that wave develops in the final weeks of the campaign, expect Republicans to pad their current state legislative advantage by adding 150 to 300 seats and nudging a few more chambers into their column.
If a GOP wave does not develop, and the Democrats gain a few seats, this could be a very interesting election of little change. That would, indeed, be historic.
By the Numbers
Forty-six states are holding elections for 6,049 legislative seats this year. Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia hold their races in odd-numbered years. In Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico and South Carolina, only the House seats are up. There also will be 20 House seats decided in American Samoa, 15 Senate seats in Guam and 15 Senate seats in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In about a quarter of these contests, candidates are running unopposed. And in only 15 states are the Democratic and Republican numbers close enough for truly competitive races.
Turnover rates in the last two election cycles have been well above average. In 2010, more than 23 percent of all seats changed hands (but not necessarily parties). And in the post-redistricting election of 2012, turnover shot up to 26.6 percent.
In Maine and Montana, redistricting of legislative lines is not completed until three years after the census, so candidates there are running in new districts this year, and that could lead to higher turnover and volatility in those legislatures. Both of these states also have legislative term limits. The highest turnover is almost always in states with legislative term limits.
Turnover in state legislatures this year is expected to be average, although it might uptick slightly if voters continue in the anti-incumbent mood they appear to be in. Typically, about 20 percent of state legislators are new following every election.
Fourteen of the 15 states with legislative term limits are holding elections this year; 225 incumbent legislators were barred from seeking reelection. Although this number is high compared to states without limits, it is the lowest number of term-limited members since 1998.
The state with the most term-limited members this year is Nebraska, where 35 percent of the one-chamber legislature was termed out. The Michigan and Arkansas houses are also losing a large number of incumbents to term limits, 26 percent and 25 percent respectively.
Of the 88 chambers holding elections this year, only about 18 are likely “in play” unless something dramatic happens before voters head to the polls. That is noticeably fewer than the 24 competitive chambers in 2012 or the 27 before the 2010 elections.
Lou Jacobson, an editor for Politifact, rates legislative elections every two years. He believes the political forecast for state legislators is particularly ominous for Democrats this year, simply because they will be playing defense in more legislative chambers and in more states. Jacobson identifies 17 chambers as battlegrounds. Of those, Democrats must defend majorities in 11, while Republican need only focus on six.
Jacobson predicts most of these chambers will be won by Republicans. The two most vulnerable chambers currently under Democratic majorities, according to Jacobson, are the New Hampshire and West Virginia houses. Toss-ups include the Colorado, Iowa and Nevada senates and the New Mexico House.
The only state in the Republican column that Jacobson lists as a toss-up is the New York Senate, where the Independent Democratic Caucus joined with Republicans to share power.
Perhaps the most surprising chamber on the list is the New Hampshire House, where Democrats currently hold a 41-seat majority in the 400-member body. The Granite State electorate has proved particularly volatile in the past two elections, with major seat swings in both. Four years ago, Republicans won the majority in grand fashion by picking up 122 seats, only to lose it two years later by giving up 120 seats.
Another interesting chamber to watch will be the Arkansas House, which the Democrats lost in 2012 for the first time since Reconstruction. In 1990, not one legislative chamber in the 12 states of the old confederacy was held by the GOP. Today, Republicans have a majority in every chamber in the South.
Big Year for Governors
In 36 states, in addition to deciding who will control state legislatures, voters will also elect governors. Of the seats up, Republicans are defending 23, Democrats 13—perhaps a silver lining for Democrats.
Although several of these races are considered predictable, as many as 15 were neck-and-neck according to many polls in early September. The best opportunities for Republicans to pick up new gubernatorial seats will be in Arkansas, Connecticut and Illinois.
In Arkansas, where Democratic Governor Mike Beebe is term-limited, Congressman Asa Hutchison, the Republican candidate, appears likely to take the reins as he has held narrow leads in just about every poll. In Connecticut and Illinois, incumbent Democratic governors were trailing in polls throughout the fall. For Democrats, the best chance for grabbing back a governor’s seat is in Pennsylvania, where Democratic challenger Tom Wolf has maintained large leads over incumbent Tom Corbett. The Democrats also are excited about prospects in Florida, Kansas, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin. Polling in all these states show challengers in dead heats against Republican incumbents.
Spending Up, Up, Up
Campaign spending in legislative races continues to grow at a staggering pace. In the last election cycle, the National Institute on Money in State Politics reported that state legislative candidates raised more than $1 billion. For this cycle, Ed Bender, head of the institute, expects “state legislative candidates to raise well over a billion dollars.”
The surge in campaign spending and lobbying in the states may be the direct result of the fact that while Washington has remained gridlocked, state lawmakers have been busy making policy. From all points on the political spectrum, they have addressed today’s challenging issues—from immigration, education, transportation and job creation to energy, health care, guns, the environment, same-sex marriage and the minimum wage—to name a few.
The parties and candidates are “all in” state elections, as the action, mostly likely, will continue to be in state capitols. No wonder there’s a growing consensus that these legislative races matter now more than ever.
Morgan Cullen and Tim Storey track state elections for NCSL.