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Lou Cannon: How Big Will the Democratic Wave Be in State Elections This Fall?

Lauren Arthur is not a household word, except perhaps in the neighborhood of suburban Kansas City, Mo., where she lives. But Arthur, who on June 5 won a special election to fill a vacancy in the Missouri Senate, epitomizes the high hopes of the Democratic Party in this year’s midterm elections.

Arthur, a former school teacher and member of the Missouri House of Representatives, defeated a Republican state House member by 20 percentage points in a once-safe GOP district that President Donald Trump carried by 4 percentage points.

She became the 42nd Democrat in the nation to win a state legislative seat previously held by a Republican since Trump became president. Only three such have switched to Republican from Democrat.

These Democratic victories, which include unexpected gains of 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates last November, have heartened Democrats heading into the 2018 midterm elections.

“It’s a challenging environment for Republicans, who for the first time in years are playing defense,” said Tim Storey, a veteran political analyst for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL).

Elections will be held this year for 87 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers and 34 of the 50 governorships as well as the entire House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 U.S. senators.

In addition to the White House, Republicans hold both houses of Congress and 33 of 50 state governorships. Democrats have 16 governorships, and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an independent.

Republicans control both legislative houses in 32 states. Democrats control 14, and party control is split in four states.

Despite the present Republican dominance, history is on the side of the Democrats. The party in power in the White House typically loses congressional and legislative seats in the first midterm election of a new president.

The president’s popularity matters. In four of the past eight midterm elections losses for the party in power were relatively slight when the president had an approval rating of 56 percent or higher in Gallup voter surveys. When approval ratings were below 56 percent, the party of the president suffered massive losses.

Trump’s latest Gallup approval rating — in a survey taken before his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — is 43 percent.

The economy can also be a factor, an apparent advantage for Republicans since economic growth is high and unemployment low. But a majority of voters nonetheless hold negative views of Trump, according to pollsters.

Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that it's as if voters are saying to Trump, “Yeah, we feel good about the economy, but we don’t really feel good about you.”

State elections have consequences. Republican victories in many states in the 2010 midterm election enabled them to carry out a conservative agenda on issues ranging from abortion to tax cuts. Congress was gridlocked much of this time.

Conversely, such Democratic redoubts as California and Hawaii forged ahead with progressive agendas, including ambitious programs to develop alternative energy.

Although they fell a vote short of a majority, the substantial gains made by Democrats in last year’s elections for the Virginia House of Delegates led to the expansion of Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor and disabled. Republicans had for five years blocked expansion.

My editor at The Washington Post liked to say that 24 hours is a long time in the life of a politician. We don’t know in June what will happen in November, but we can identify most of the political battlegrounds.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, is the only governor seeking re-election in a battleground state. Other governors in such states have been termed out.

Rauner, a multimillionaire, trails in polls to Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune. Politico says the race, on which spending has already exceeded $200 million, could become the most expensive governor’s race of all time.

Maine and New Mexico, both with termed-out Republican governors, are listed as leaning Democratic by RealClearPolitics.

In addition, the RealClearPolitics polling average ranks four states in which Republican governors are retiring as toss-ups. They are Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Ohio.

If the Democrats sweep the toss-ups while also winning Illinois, Maine and New Mexico, they’d pull nearly even with Republicans on governorships. But that’s a best-case Democratic scenario.

The best case on the Republican side would be winning the toss-ups plus Colorado and Connecticut, both of which have Democratic governors who are termed out. Neither state has yet held its primary.

Noteworthy among the nominees is Stacey Abrams of Georgia, the first African-American woman in the nation to be nominated for governor by a major party. She’ll face the winner of a July 24 Republican runoff between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Abrams is the underdog, but her candidacy has drawn national attention.

Another noteworthy nominee is Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., who defeated male opponents to become the first Democratic Latina nominee for governor. She’s slightly favored over a Trump supporter, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., one of the many conservative Republicans elected to the House in 2010.

Democrats are so far behind in state legislatures that parity in a single election may be beyond their grasp. During the eight years of President Barack Obama’s tenure, Democrats lost 958 state legislative seats, 12 governorships, 62 House seats and 11 Senate seats.

“Democrats are scraping bottom and have nowhere to go but up,” Storey said. “The big question for Democrats is how much of a wave election it will be. In a normal wave, the party out of power picks up 300 legislative seats and six to eight chambers.

“In 2010, the Republicans won 22 chambers. I don’t think this is 2010, but it’s too early to tell.”

As Storey sees it, Democrats in a normal wave could win both houses in Arizona if they’re able to energize Latino voters. They also have a good chance of capturing the Colorado Senate, where Republicans hold a one-vote majority, and the Connecticut Senate, which is tied.

Other possible Democratic legislative pickups in a normal wave include the New Hampshire Senate and House, the Maine and Wisconsin senates, and the New York Senate. Although Democrats technically have a majority in the New York Senate, power is wielded by a Republican-leaning coalition.

Storey said that in a big wave Democrats would also have a shot at winning the houses in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, the senates in Florida and Iowa, and both houses in Michigan.

This year’s elections mark the beginning of the battle for control of statehouses in the next decade. In 2021, new legislative and congressional maps based on the 2020 census will be drawn by legislatures, in many states subject to veto by the governor. (Thirteen states redistrict legislatures by independent commissions; seven do so for U.S. House districts.)

Thirty-two of the 34 governors who will be elected in November will be in office when the new districts are drawn. (New Hampshire and Vermont have two-year gubernatorial terms.) More than 800 of the legislators elected this year will also be in office in 2021.

Midterm elections are usually referendums on the president, and the 2018 elections are no exception. Democrats throughout the country are assailing Trump’s policies and personality. Republicans defend Trump where he is popular and try to change the subject in places where he is not.

There’s a notable change this year in the political conversation over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obamacare. In the 2010 election, the first Obama midterm, the ACA was largely a Democratic liability. Passed in 2009 on a party-line vote, the law was not yet operative and Republicans exploited voter concerns about its merits.

But after five years of operation beginning in 2013, polls find that the ACA has become popular. Congressional Republicans failed in their promises to repeal the law and are on the defensive on this issue in many states.

Support of the ACA and the Medicaid expansion it allows has been a potent issue for many Democrats who have won special legislative elections since Trump’s election. Whether this support continues to help Democrats in November remains to be seen.

Most pundits and pollsters agree that a wave is coming. At this distance from the election, it’s impossible to know how many Democrats it will carry onto shore.

Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, 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. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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