StateVote 2014: Pre-Election Analysis

11/6/2014

Overview

This page contains pre-election information and analysis for the 2014 midterm elections, focusing on legislative races, partisan control of legislative chambers, legislative turnover and statewide ballot measures.

For post-election information, see StateVote 2014: Results.

Midterm elections may lack the national gravitas and frenzy of presidential elections but state races are where the action is, since states are leading in policy innovation while Congress is mired in gridlock.

2014 Vote buttonForty-six states are holding elections for 6,049 legislative seats this year on Nov. 4. (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia hold their races in odd-numbered years.) In 41 states, seats in the House and Senate are up. Only House seat are on the ballot in Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico and South Carolina. Then there’s Nebraska, with a unicameral Legislature.

The big question for 2014? Will party control of any chambers change hands—and if so, in which direction. Currently, Republicans have a 57-41 advantage in control of legislative chambers. Add in governor’s races in 36 states and the outcome will determine how many states are fully under one-party control. For more on legislative races and the politics of state control, see the map below.

This year’s ballots in 41 states plus the District of Columbia include close to 150 ballot questions for voters to decide.  For more on ballot measures, see below or contact Wendy Underhill at 303-364-7700.

For historical information on legislative races, see StateVote. For more information about party composition or this year’s legislative races, contact Morgan Cullen at 303-364-7700.

Legislative Partisan Composition 2014 | Post-Election

Go to our interactive map to see the party control in each chamber.

Legislative Partisan Composition 2014 | Pre-Election

 

Legislative Races

One of the most consistent trends in American politics is that the party holding the White House loses ground in midterm elections.

In the past 114 years, there have been 28 midterm elections, and 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.

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 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.

Partisan Control

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.

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.

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.

Turnover

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.

Statewide Ballot Measures

Voters in 41 states plus the District of Columbia will decide 147 statewide ballot measures. This year’s line-up is somewhat different than recent years:

  • There fewer statewide ballot measures in 2014 than in most even-yeared elections. The average is 180, with a low, until now, of 153 and a high of 204.
  • The number of initiatives—measures put on ballots by citizens gathering signatures—is also down with 35 on the ballot. Is “signers’ fatigue” making it harder to gather signatures? Is it harder to raise money for a cause than it was in the past?  Twenty-four states provide citizens an avenue for getting their issues on the ballot. From 2000 through 2012, the number of citizen initiatives on November ballots in even years has varied between 42 and 76 with an average of 56. (For more on the procedural aspects of ballot measures, see NCSL’s Initiative and Referendum Overview.)
  • Nothing related to marriage is on any statewide ballot.    

Whether this year’s crop of ballot measures holds a message for the nation as a whole remains to be seen—especially since all politics is local. In Montana, for instance, at least one measure, relating to eliminating same-day registration, was a response to divided government. The Republican-led Legislature sent the governor a bill to eliminate it, and it was vetoed. It took no time for lawmakers to refer their plan to the voters, who will have their say this year. And in California, a water-conservation measure, Proposition 1, has been in the works for years. After trimming the measure that would deal with water storage back to $7.5 billion, it is finally on the ballot this year—a year when the state is facing a severe drought.

By topic area, this year’s statewide ballot measures offer a wide range of ideas, some new and some not-so-new. Lawmakers may be watching to see what passes, with an eye to whether these ideas might spread to their own state.

Here, in something like rank order of importance to other states, are some of the topics to watch. Links take you to blog entries that give the details and the context.

  • Tax policy is on many states’ ballots
  • Setting state minimum wages (Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota)
  • Medical marijuana (Guam and Florida) and recreational marijuana (Alaska, the District of Columbia and Oregon)
  • Elections policies such as same day registration in Montana, “top two” primaries in Oregon and permitting early voting for Connecticut and Missouri
  • Education, from pre-K to funding for grad school, is on ballots in eight states, some with funding proposals and some with structural changes.
  • Gambling, either expanding it (Colorado, Rhode Island and South Dakota) or restricting it (Massachusetts)
  • Transportation funding and finance (Louisiana, Maryland, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin)
  • Background checks for purchasing guns (two opposing measures in Washington)
  • Requiring labeling for foods that contain genetically modified organisms (Colorado and Oregon)
  • Allowing terminally ill patients to access drugs that have not yet made it through the whole approval process (Arizona)  

For information about all of 2014’s statewide ballot measures, see NCSL’s database of ballot measures or contact Wendy Underhill at 303-364-7700.

Wendy Underhill covers election administration, the initiative and referendum process and ballot measures for NCSL.

Additional Resources