Republicans reached a milestone two years ago when they won control of the House of Representatives, gained a majority of governorships and captured more state legislative seats than at any time since the long-ago November day when Herbert Hoover was elected president.
Entering this year’s election cycle, the GOP hoped to parlay its 2010 breakthrough into even greater victories. Polls and pundits gave Republicans a strong chance of winning the Senate and a decent one of regaining the White House. Abetted by favorable redistrictings after the 2010 census, the GOP also sought to cement its House majority and expand control of the nation’s statehouses.
Seven weeks into the year, some of these Republican ambitions have been muted. President Barack Obama’s re-election chances have improved, aided by an uptick in the economy and a contentious battle for the Republican presidential nomination. Public regard for Congress has reached an all-time low, encouraging retirements on both sides of the political aisle. Court challenges to congressional and legislative redistrictings in North Carolina and Texas — and probably Florida — have clouded GOP expectations in the states.
Although Republicans could still sweep the board in the 2012 elections, their path to victory has become more difficult. Here, starting with the states, is the latest outlook, based on interviews, analyses and public opinion surveys:
Statehouses remain the brightest prospect for Republicans, who have a 29-20 edge in governorships, with one independent. Only 11 gubernatorial elections are scheduled in 2012, eight of them in states in which Democrats hold the governorship. Compounding the Democrats’ predicament, the three GOP governorships are in the safe Republican states of Indiana, North Dakota and Utah. North Carolina, where a Democratic incumbent is retiring, leans Republican. Three other states with Democratic governors — Montana, New Hampshire and Washington — are ranked as toss-ups by both the Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg political reports. Democrats may have an opportunity in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker faces a likely recall election this summer.
In 2010, Republicans won more state legislative seats (and chambers) than at any time since 1928, the heady year before the stock market crash signaled the Great Depression. Going into this year’s elections, Republicans control 59 legislative chambers, Democrats 36, with three ties. Unicameral Nebraska, nominally nonpartisan, is Republican in practice.
Compilations by Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures show there are currently 3,979 GOP state legislators, compared to 3,317 Democrats. (At the Republican high-water mark in 1928, GOP legislators numbered 4,001.)
For the most part, GOP-controlled legislatures in 2011 proceeded cautiously on legislative redistricting, protecting marginal incumbents instead of trying to expand their majorities. But Republicans may have overreached with redistrictings in Florida, North Carolina and especially Texas, where the new congressional and legislative district boundaries have been challenged under the Voting Rights Act. A tangled Texas court case is unlikely to upset GOP control of the Legislature but could determine the outcome of up to three U.S. House districts.
A larger question for Republicans at the state level is whether they can preserve their success in the Midwestern bastions of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin where GOP governors and legislators have taken an aggressive stance against public employee unions. The unions have pushed back and in 2011 won a referendum in Ohio that struck down a legislatively approved ban on collective bargaining by public employees. Unions have also taken a leading roll in the campaign to recall Walker in Wisconsin. Legislative chambers in the region where power could change hands include the Minnesota House, where Republicans hold a 72-62 edge, and the Iowa Senate, where Democrats hold a 26-24 majority.
Scattered across the country are other legislative chambers where slight shifts could change partisan control. These include the New York Senate, where Republicans have a two-vote margin, and the Colorado House, where they hold a one-vote edge. Democrats hold a one-vote margin in the Nevada Senate.
Southern historians have a particular interest in the legislative elections in Arkansas, where Democrats control the state Senate by five votes and the House by 10. Two decades ago Democrats controlled every southern legislature, but Republicans now dominate this conservative region in which large majorities of whites support the GOP while corresponding majorities of African Americans vote Democratic. The GOP broke through in 2010 and again in the 2011 elections in Mississippi and Virginia, leaving Arkansas as the last state of the old Confederacy with a Democratic majority in any state legislative chamber.
On paper, Republicans are well positioned to win the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hold a 53-47 majority (including two independents who caucus with them) and even more to hold the House, where the current Republican margin is 242-193. Including states where there is no election, the RealClearPolitics lists 47 Senate seats as safe for Republicans and 45 for Democrats. Eight seats are listed as tossups, six of them now represented by Democrats.
If Republicans hold tossup seats in Massachusetts and Nevada, they would need to win only two Democratic seats to control the Senate. Remember, however, that two years ago Republicans also seemed poised to take over the Senate before nominating weak Tea Party candidates in Delaware and Nevada. Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the respected Cook Report gives Republicans an edge but not a lock. In a February evaluation she wrote that the “Democrats’ best hope is to recruit first-tier challengers in Massachusetts and Nevada, then work hard to retain as many of their own seats as possible and hope for a little luck.”
It will take more than luck for the Democrats to win the House. RealClearPolitics lists 214 seats as safe Republican and 172 safe Democrat with 49 tossups. Republicans need only four of the tossups to reach the 218 mark necessary for control of the chamber. Democrats have been cheered by a National Journal poll showing Republicans leading 48 percent to 37 percent on a generic congressional ballot and helped by redistrictings in California and Illinois, which together could give them as many as a half-dozen seats.
Nevertheless, says David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Report, “the structural impediments to a Democratic majority continue to pile higher.” He notes that seven current Democratic members are guaranteed to lose because they are running against each other as a result of redistrictings, which have also endangered six other Democratic incumbents. Furthermore, Republicans are favored to win five of the 20 seats in which Democrats are retiring while losing only one of 15 seats in which there are GOP retirements.
“Add it all up, and Democrats actually need to pick up roughly 35 to 40 GOP-held or newly created districts in order to claw back to 218 seats,” wrote Wasserman.
This may not be an impossible hurdle, but it is a daunting one.
Overlaying all these elections is the impact of the presidential race, which has moved in Obama’s direction. A mid-February poll by Pew Research found Obama ahead of Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points and of Rick Santorum by 10 points.
But the Democrats are no more assured of winning the presidency than Republicans are of wining Congress. Presidential elections are determined by electoral votes, and the margin here is close. Obama leads in states having 217 electoral votes and trails in states with 181 electoral votes, with 140 electoral votes in the tossup category.
Although Obama’s re-election would not necessarily translate into statehouse or congressional victories, Storey observes that “it matters what happens at the top of the ticket,” especially in tossup states where the presidential race will mostly be waged. In these dozen or so states, both parties will wage an expensive and fierce campaign to turn out voters who are likely to support the entire ticket. In a few of these states — notably Colorado, Iowa and Nevada — at least one legislative house is so closely divided that even a slight boost from the top could make the difference.
“Slight” is the operative word. The last two times an incumbent president was re-elected — Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004 — the winning party gained an average of just seven House seats.
It’s early, of course. My late esteemed editor at The Washington Post, Richard Harwood, regularly warned reporters: “Twenty-four hours is a long time in the life of a politician.” Much could change between now and November. All that can be safely said is that Democrats presently lead the presidential contest while Republicans are ahead in the battles to control Congress and a majority of statehouses. If these trends continue, the nation faces four more years of divided — and divisive — government.
— 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.