Elections have consequences, as Democrats have been reminded ever since Republicans swept to victory in 2010, winning the House of Representatives and capturing more seats and chambers in state legislative elections than at any time since 1928.
Control of the House gave the GOP the defensive capability to block most of the Obama administration’s legislative proposals during the last two years. But in the statehouses Republicans did more than play defense. Their gains in the states translated into tangible legislative results. With control of both legislative chambers in 26 states and one chamber in eight others, plus a majority of governorships, Republicans have advanced a mostly conservative agenda on myriad issues, among them abortion, collective bargaining, immigration, pension reform and voter identification.
Now, beneath the radar of more publicized campaigns, the GOP is well positioned to preserve its edge in the statehouses in the 2012 elections, no matter what happens in the presidential election. Candidates in most states will run in districts reapportioned on the basis of the 2010 census. In the states where the legislators did the redistricting, the parties in power usually opted to protect seats they held instead of trying to expand their majorities, observes Tim Storey, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of the states where control is up for grabs were redistricted either by the courts or independent commissions.
Democrats start out with a particular disadvantage in gubernatorial races. The GOP holds only three of the 11 governorships at stake this year, and they are in the Republican strongholds of Indiana, North Dakota and Utah. In contrast, Democrats are vulnerable in four states with Democratic governors who did not seek re-election. This vulnerability is greatest in North Carolina, where a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, echoing other poll results, gave Republican Pat McCrory a seven-point lead over Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the Democratic nominee. Polls also give Republican gubernatorial nominees reasonable chances in three other open states now governed by Democrats: Montana, New Hampshire and Washington. All are toss-ups.
Both parties have opportunities in this year’s legislative races, although the overall pattern of Republican dominance seems likely to continue. Elections will be held for 6,015 seats in 86 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers. Republicans control 51 of these chambers, Democrats 32 and two are tied. Nebraska, which also votes this year, has a unicameral legislature that is nominally nonpartisan although behaviorally Republican.
Storey anticipated the Republican breakthrough in 2010. What follows is his analysis of the 15 legislative chambers in 11 states, listed alphabetically, most likely to shift partisan control in 2012:
» Alaska Senate — This 20-member Senate, the smallest in the nation, is tied and has been operating effectively under a GOP-Democratic coalition with a moderate Republican presiding as a tie-breaker. Conservatives hope the GOP will pick up a seat or two in November and dispose of the coalition.
» Arkansas Senate and House — Arkansas is the last Democratic bastion in Dixie and therefore symbolically important to both parties. Following the elections of 2010 and 2011, Republicans control every legislature in the 10 other states of the old Confederacy. In Arkansas, Democrats hold majorities in both legislative chambers, but Republicans have whittled away at their margins, now five in the Senate and eight in the House. The GOP could win one or both chambers in a state where President Barack Obama has a low approval rating.
» Colorado — In play at every level. Democrats hold a five-seat advantage in the Senate and Republicans a one-seat margin in the House. The outcome is rated a toss-up. Storey, who lives in Colorado, said Democrats have a slight advantage because of a strong field organization the Obama team kept in place from four years ago but that either chamber could nonetheless go either way. National polls give Obama a slim lead over Mitt Romney in this classic swing state.
» Iowa Senate — Democrats hold a two-seat advantage in a state that has been impeccably redistricted by the Legislature to avoid partisan advantage. The outcome is considered a toss-up. This is another state where turnout for the presidential election, in which Obama currently has a narrow lead in the polls, could have an impact on other races.
» Maine — This is the only state holding legislative elections this year that has not reapportioned its districts. Republicans hold a six-vote majority in the Senate and a four-vote majority in the House. The GOP is favored to retain control but Democrats hope to win at least one chamber in a state famed for the independence of its electorate.
» Minnesota — This may be the best chance for Democrats to rebound from the Republican near-sweep of the Midwest in 2010. Republicans hold a nine-vote margin in the House and a seven-vote margin in the Senate. Both chambers are rated by Storey as toss-ups.
» Montana Senate — Republicans have a six-seat edge but Democrats are given an outside chance to win the upper chamber in a state that has been politically volatile. Republicans hold the House by more than a 2-to-1 margin.
» Nevada Senate — Democrats hold a one-vote margin in the 21-member Senate, perennially among the nation’s most closely divided legislative bodies. Ten seats are being contested, and Republicans need to win six to reverse the present 11-10 Democratic margin. They have a chance to do so.
» New Mexico House — Republicans have launched a focused and well-financed effort to win a chamber in which Democrats have a three-seat margin. This is another state in which Obama leads narrowly and turnout in the presidential race could have an impact. Rated a toss-up.
» New York Senate — Republicans hold a two-vote margin after cliff-hanging victories in 2010. Storey says the Democratic effort to take back the Senate may be compromised by a quirk, unique to New York, in which the Legislature increased the number of Senate seats to 63 from 62. Both sides say control of the Senate hinges on one or two seats. In a state certain to go heavily for Obama, the state Senate could go either way.
» Oregon — This consistently is the most closely divided state legislature in the nation, as the current breakdown attests. Democrats have a two-vote margin in the Senate. The House is tied 30-30 with rotating speakers between the parties. Both chambers are rated as toss-ups in the upcoming election, but the outcome is unlikely to make a difference except to the individuals involved. In an era of bitter partisan gridlock, Oregon is the great exception. It functions well and passes budgets on time no matter which party is at the helm or even, as presently in the House, when power is shared.
» Washington Senate — Democrats hold a five-seat margin in the upper chamber, and Republicans are intent on changing it. But all Democratic incumbents survived the recent primaries, and Washington, like neighboring Oregon, trends Democratic in national elections. The state Senate elections are rated as leaning Democratic but close. Democrats have a secure majority in the House.
Beyond the contests for control in the 15 chambers listed above, elections in at least two other states bear watching. In New Hampshire, the nation’s largest legislature, Democrats are favored to win a number of Republican seats in the House, although the GOP margin of 290-104 appears insurmountable. In California, Democrats are optimistic of winning two additional seats in the 40-member state Senate, to give them a two-thirds majority. California requires a two-thirds margin to pass tax increases, which the GOP legislative minority has stymied many times in the past.
Legislative elections can be significant, as the advancement of the conservative agenda in the states has demonstrated in the wake of the big Republican victories in 2010. It has not been easy going for most states, most of which have just returned to an even fiscal keel following the layoffs and turbulence of the Great Recession. In the two years ahead, states will face numerous new challenges on health care, education, energy, pension reform and other issues. Although the presidency is the grand prize in November, our lives will also be impacted by the elections in the states.
— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.