Timing is crucial in politics, as Democrats were reminded to their dismay in 2010 when Republicans scored their largest legislative gains in more than seven decades in a year that coincided with the decennial census.
The headline news of the 2010 elections was that Republicans had reclaimed control of the House of Representatives, which they had lost four years earlier, by winning 63 seats. But the state legislative victories were even more consequential for the future.
Every 10 years states redraw congressional and legislative districts on the basis of the census. Because of their momentous 2010 victories, in which Republicans won 720 seats and 24 legislative chambers previously held by Democrats, Republicans controlled a majority of states during the post-census redistrictings. For the most part, according to political analyst Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans opted to protect GOP seats that might have become vulnerable in a Democratic year rather than reaching a bridge too far to add new seats.
Largely because of favorable redistrictings, Republicans entered the 2012 elections with an advantage that should enable the GOP to keep control of the House and a majority of legislatures regardless of the outcome of the down-to-the-wire presidential race. Currently, Republicans control both legislative chambers in 26 states compared to 15 states in which Democrats control both chambers. Power is divided between the parties in eight states. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan unicameral legislature.) Republicans control 59 chambers and Democrats 36. The Alaska House, the Oregon House and the Virginia Senate are tied.
Republicans hold 29 governorships compared to 20 for the Democrats with one independent and could add to their margin in 2012. Only 11 states hold gubernatorial elections this year and only three are in states governed by Republicans: the GOP strongholds of Indiana, North Dakota and Utah where Republican victories seem assured.
Four of the eight states with Democratic governors — Delaware, Missouri, Vermont and West Virginia — have incumbents who are favored to win re-election. But Republicans have mounted a fierce challenge to Democrats in the four states without incumbents: Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Washington. Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report says Republicans should gain at least one governorship and could win all four “if everything breaks their way.”
The consensus view is that Republicans have their best chance in North Carolina, where former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the GOP nominee, has a hefty lead in the polls over his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. Duffy rates the other three states as toss-ups.
More than 6,000 state legislative seats are being contested in the 2012 election, 82 percent of the total. Partisan control, at least on paper, is up for grabs in only 18 to 20 of the 86 chambers for which elections will be held. The last three elections have been “wave elections,” defined as an election in which one party wins 20 or more U.S. House seats and usually a larger number of legislative seats. The Democrats won wave elections in 2006 and 2008. With the electorate closely divided, neither party anticipates a wave election this year.
Republican legislative candidates may have been helped by Mitt Romney’s late surge since the presidential contest often influences down-ballot races, especially in battleground states.
“The first debate (between President Barack Obama and Romney) changed the dynamic of the presidential race and may have been helpful to Republicans in legislative races,” Storey said.
Nonetheless, both parties have opportunities to win legislative chambers in November. Here are the 12 states and 18 chambers deemed most likely to change partisan hands:
» Alaska — The Senate, the nation’s smallest, has operated effectively despite a 10-10 tie under a two-party coalition with a moderate Republican presiding as a tie-breaker. Conservative Republicans hope the GOP can add a seat so they can dissolve the coalition. The House, in which Republicans hold a 22-18 edge, is also in play.
» Arkansas — Democrats hold an eight-seat edge in the House and a five-seat edge in the Senate in a state symbolically important because it’s the last Democratic bastion in the region. Every other legislative chamber in the 10 other states of the old Confederacy is controlled by the GOP, which has mounted a well-funded campaign to win both Arkansas chambers in a state where Obama is unpopular.
» Colorado — This presidential election battleground is among the closest of the swing states. Democrats hold a five-seat edge in the Senate and Republicans a one-seat margin in the House, where GOP control is in jeopardy.
» Iowa — Democrats hold a two-seat advantage in the Senate in a state in which the Legislature is impartially redistricted. Iowa is also a presidential battleground where control of the Senate could be influenced by the outcome at the top of the ticket.
» Maine — In a state that will not redistrict until 2013, 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 nothing’s certain in this independent-minded state.
» Minnesota — This state provides one of the best chances for a Democratic rebound from the Republican near-sweep of the Midwest in 2010. But it’s a tall order. Republicans hold a 10-vote edge in the Senate and a seven-vote edge in the House.
» Nevada — Democrats hold an 11-10 edge in the Senate, invariably one of the nation’s most closely divided legislative bodies. Ten seats are being contested with control — or at least a tie — hinging on the outcome of a Reno-area swing district in this swing state.
» New Mexico — Republicans have mounted a well-financed effort to win control of the House, where they have a three-seat deficit, but Obama’s lead in this state could save the House for the Democrats.
» New York — The Democratic effort to regain control of the state Senate, in which Republicans hold a four-vote edge, may be compromised by the Legislature’s increase of the number of Senate seats to 63 from 62. The outcome is considered a toss-up in one of Obama’s strongest states.
» Oregon — Democrats have a two-vote margin in the Senate, with the House tied. Both chambers are rated as toss-ups in this pro-Obama state, but the outcomes may matter only to the individuals involved. In defiance of the national trend of gridlocked partisanship, the Oregon Legislature functions effectively and passes budgets on time no matter which party is in control. The House rotates speakers between the two parties.
» Washington — Democrats hold a five-vote margin in the Senate and appear likely to fend off a strong Republican challenge to control of this chamber in a state where Obama is running strongly.
» Wisconsin — This state could be a sleeper for Democrats, who came up short June 5 in their attempt to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker but on the same day narrowly won a less-publicized recall election that gave the Democrats a 17-16 edge in the state Senate. Democrats are working hard to hold this Racine County seat in a state where polls give Obama a small lead.
At least three other chambers bear watching. Democrats in California, where a two-thirds majority is needed for tax measures, are trying to pick up two seats to gain two-thirds control in the Senate. Democrats have a long-shot chance at the Montana Senate, where Republicans hold a six-vote edge. Democrats could pick up a slew of seats in New Hampshire, the nation’s largest legislature, but the GOP margin of 290-104 seems insurmountable.
Legislatures matter. They spend a collective $1.5 trillion a year and have historically advanced the national policy agenda during times when government is divided between the parties in Washington, as it has been the last two years and could be again after the Nov. 6 election.
With the wind at their back after their 2010 victories, Republican-controlled legislatures pursued a conservative agenda on issues of abortion, immigration, collective bargaining, pension reform and voter identification, among other issues, many of which will be on the table again next year. If the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, survives, states will have an additional role in 2013 of setting up marketplaces, known as exchanges, in which consumers can shop for affordable health-care insurance.
So there’s much at stake in the 2012 legislative elections, as Democrats seek to mount a comeback and Republicans try to hold their edge.
— 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.