2010 State Legislatures: Democrats Buckle Up for Wild Ride

The nation's state legislatures are in for one especially volatile election cycle as Republicans poise for gains.
by | July 7, 2010
 

The race to control the nation's legislatures may be overshadowed during this year's midterm elections by congressional and gubernatorial contests, but the battle is poised to be pivotal nonetheless.

This fall's legislative elections -- the last before the start of a new once-every-decade redistricting process -- are unique for two reasons. According to this author's estimates, more chambers are in play this year than in any cycle since at least 2002. Even more strikingly, the Democrats have vastly more at risk than the Republicans do.

"This is going to be an extremely challenging year for Democrats for a variety of reasons," says Tim Storey, who analyzes elections for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "History is not on their side. Since 1900, the party in the White House loses seats in the legislature in every midterm except for 1934 and 2002. That's a 2-25 losing streak for the party in the White House -- a tough trend to break. Add to that the fact that Democrats are riding high right now at over 55 percent of all seats, and it shapes up to be possibly the worst election for Democrats since 1994."

The 18 States in Play

Currently, the Democrats have 21 chambers in play, compared to just four for the Republicans. In none of the previous five cycles -- which included two national wave elections (2006 and 2008) and a heavily anti-incumbent cycle for governors (2002) -- was there ever this wide a difference in projected risk between the two parties. To see capsule reports on the 18 states with at least one chamber in play, click here.

Expanded coverage, including interactive maps, ratings and analysis for all state legislative races, is available here.

This will be the fifth consecutive election cycle in which this author has handicapped and analyzed the legislatures of the 50 states in the months leading up to the election. Typically, the legislatures are analyzed once in the early summer and a second time in the fall, with late-breaking updates added through Election Day. The assessment is based on interviews with nearly 100 sources in the state capitals as well as with national political strategists.

Even though we're still months away from the election, this cycle appears likely to become an especially volatile one. Just under one-third (31 percent) of the legislative chambers that are up this fall are considered "in play" -- that is, rated tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican. (Chambers that are likely Democratic/likely Republican and safe Democratic/safe Republican are not considered to be "in play," at least for now.) That rate is several percentage points higher than any rating in this handicapping series going back to the fall of 2002, which also topped out at 31 percent. And in most recent cycles, the number of competitive chambers has risen as Election Day nears, putting 2010 on a course to be the most turbulent of the past decade.

But even more notable than the volatility is the differential risk the two parties face. Currently, the Democrats have 21 chambers in play, compared to just four for the Republicans -- a burden five times as heavy for the Democrats. None of the previous five cycles -- which included two national wave elections (2006 and 2008) and a heavily anti-incumbent cycle for governors (2002) -- ever had this wide a difference in projected risk between the two parties. Instead, the typical ratio of vulnerable chambers between the parties has been close to even. Indeed, even in the awful political environment for the GOP in 2006 -- when the party was skidding toward losing control of both chambers of Congress -- this analyst rated 12 Republican chambers at risk, which was barely more than the 10 Democratic chambers that appeared to be at risk.

Throughout history, some of the biggest landslides for the legislatures have come during midterm elections. In 1994, the Democrats lost 20 chambers to the Republicans and one to a tie, without gaining a single chamber. In the post-Watergate election of 1974, the Republicans lost 21 chambers to the Democrats and two to ties, while gaining only one from the Democrats.

But in addition to bearing the strong historical burden facing any party occupying the White House during a president's first midterm election, today's Democratic Party is also set up for a fall. The Democrats today control a majority of the governors' offices, state Senates and state Houses at a time when a severe national recession and state fiscal crises are pushing voters into an angry, anti-incumbent mood. Polls typically show Republicans and Republican-leaning voters more energized to vote than their Democratic counterparts, undercutting Democratic hopes in almost every state.

"I think the main issue will be jobs and the economy," Storey says. "State budgets continue to be in very poor shape, so all legislatures do these days is make deep cuts. It's hard to build support when all you do is cut programs across the board and anger nearly every constituency."

Implementation of the new health care law will also pose challenges for states, while hot-button issues such as immigration could produce extra volatility.

The starkest difference in the playing field between the two parties comes with the chambers rated as tossups. Of these, 10 out of 10 are currently held by the Democrats. In a neutral political environment, these tossups might split roughly 50-50. But in a cycle tilted in the Republicans favor, an even split seems unlikely.

And yet the Democrats can take modest comfort in two factors. So far, 10 Democratic-held chambers are rated as leaning Democratic. If the party can shore up its defenses in these chambers, it could escape the 2010 cycle with only modest losses. By contrast, only one Democratic-held chamber is rated as leaning Republican -- the Indiana House. There's still time for some of the lean Democratic chambers to slip into the tossup category and for some of the Democratic-held tossups to become lean Republican chambers. But the longer the Democrats can stave off that drift, the better position they'll be in.

The second potential source of Democratic comfort is that the Republican Party's image with the public tends to be in the doldrums too -- and the Republicans, to a greater degree than the Democrats, are divided, with an establishment and a Tea Party wing at loggerheads. So far in congressional primaries, the Tea Party wing has become ascendant, and some suggest that those candidates could be weaker in general election contests. It's not yet obvious that the GOP has hurt itself with too-conservative legislative candidates, but in this environment, it does remain a risk for the party.

"I think the magnitude is shaping up to be something between 1994 and 2006 in terms of turnover and control of chambers," say Thom Little, the director of curriculum development and research for the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. "It should be less than 1994 because of some internal GOP battles and because Democrats will not be blindsided like 1994. But it should be more than 2006 because Democrats have won three straight cycles and they have more to lose than the GOP did in 2006, when the legislatures were at parity. I also believe the voters are in an angrier mood than in 2006."

The 18 States in Play

Senate Chambers
LEANING DEMOCRATIC (5) TOSSUPS (5) LEANING REPUBLICAN (2)
Colorado

Iowa

Maine

Nevada

North Carolina

Alabama

Alaska

New Hampshire

New York

Wisconsin

Montana

Tennessee

House Chambers
LEANING DEMOCRATIC (5) TOSSUPS (7) LEANING REPUBLICAN (3)
Colorado

Delaware

Michigan

Minnesota

North Carolina

Alabama

Iowa

Montana

New Hampshire

Ohio

Pennsylvania

Wisconsin

Alaska

Indiana

Tennessee

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