New Print Edition: Handicapping the State Legislatures

July 7, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

The new July 7, 2006 print edition of the Rothenberg Political Report is on its way to subscribers. (Click here for subscription information.)

Handicapping the State Legislatures: A 50-State Status Report
By Louis Jacobson

Both Democrats and Republicans agree: Despite the possibility of a wave at the national level, the fight to control the state legislatures will boil down to Tip O’Neill’s dictum: “All politics is local.”

In part, this is because in most states, legislators draw their own district lines, based on local rather than national factors. And the issue looming over the 2006 legislative elections is the fight to control the state Houses and Senates after 2010, when the next legislative and Congressional lines are drawn.

This became even more urgent with the June 28 Supreme Court ruling that upheld Texas’s mid-decade redistricting.

Of the thirty-six states in which state legislatures control redistricting, twenty are within four seats of switching party control.

Indeed, even now, party strategists are assembling two- and three-cycle plans to retake one chamber of another. This is especially true for Democrats in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Another factor this year is the big shadow cast by legislative term limits. Say what you will about the wisdom of limiting legislators’ terms: They have opened up at least the hope of intra-party competition.

Another factor this cycle will be the gubernatorial landscape, in which well over a dozen incumbents are considered vulnerable. Gubernatorial troubles in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin could influence legislative races, while a two-year-itch for unpopular first-term governors could hurt the legislative colleagues of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, both Republicans. That said, the link between governors’ races and legislative contests is not always direct; much of the time, voting patterns may have more to do with how good a party’s overall get-out-the-vote operation is rather than the level of satisfaction with the incumbent.

By the numbers, we see ten vulnerable Democratic-held chambers, compared to only eight vulnerable Republican-held chambers. But don’t let that fool you. Republicans acknowledge that President Bush’s problems are being felt at the local level, and they know that if Democratic voters want to send a message this fall, state legislatures could be a key venue for that message.

“Voting based on the president matters as much as voting based on the governor,” said Tim Storey, a political analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “If there are megatrends that drive turnout, it can spell trouble for party in power.”

History bears this out. According to the NCSL, the party occupying the White House has lost legislative seats in every midterm election back to 1938, except in 2002, when President Bush gained 177 seats. Even the swing four years ago was small compared to some others in the past half-century: 514 Democratic seats lost in 1994, 628 Republican seats lost in 1974, 762 Democratic seats lost in 1966 and 812 Republican seats lost in 1958.

Even if the Republicans were to lose just a small fraction of those seats this fall, a big swing in partisan control could result, because so many chambers today are closely divided, and because Republicans hold many of the chambers where a Democratic wave could make gains possible.

On average, twelve chambers flip control in every two-year cycle. In the 2004 cycle, thirteen chambers flipped.

The Democrats are on something of a roll legislatively. Since Bush broke with history in 2002, they have picked up legislative seats in 2003, 2004, and 2005, according to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. On the last major Election Day for legislators, 2004, Democrats gained forty-five seats nationally.

And Democrats can take heart that the recent special elections for legislative seats have mostly gone their way. In eleven of twelve special elections in which a seat changed partisan hands, the seat switched from the GOP to the Democrats; only two went the other way, according to the NCSL. And in no fewer than nine special elections, Democratic candidates won state House or Senate seats with vote shares between six and twenty percentage points above normal Democratic performance in those districts, according to the DLCC. These included three races each in Pennsylvania and Virginia and one each in Kentucky, Missouri and Texas.

Another notable trend is that several of long-serving legislative leaders have been knocked out in primaries this year, including political giants in Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. This has been mostly a Republican problem, emblematic of a base divided between die-hard conservatives and more pragmatic politicians. That, too, cannot be a good sign for the GOP as it enters an election season that will almost certainly be a battle between the two parties’ bases.

All of this comes in a context of almost perfect parity nationally. The two parties control the same number of state Senates, and the GOP has a mere two-chamber lead in state Houses. Looked at a different way, Republicans control twenty legislatures outright, the Democrats control nineteen outright and ten are split. And seats? All told, just twenty-one seats separate the two parties — 3,663 for the Democrats, 3,642 for the Republicans, a difference of less than three-tenths of one percent.

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