2010 State Legislatures: Forecast Worsens for Democrats

The Democratic peril is especially high this year because it's a midterm election, and some of the biggest landslides for the legislatures have come during midterm elections.
by | September 29, 2010
 

Check out the updated state legislative race ratings here.

When Governing last assessed the 2010 state legislative elections in July, the situation looked grim for the Democrats. The Democrats had 21 of their chambers in play, compared to just four for the Republicans -- by far the most lopsided split we've seen in any of the past five election cycles.

Now, a few months down the road, the Democratic outlook for the state legislatures has only worsened.

In our new assessment -- the second of three we will do before Election Day -- we find 28 chambers "in play," a net increase of one from July. Of the 28, the Democrats currently control 25, with just one held by the GOP and two currently tied. (Chambers that are rated tossups and lean Democratic/lean Republican are considered to be "in play.")

As we indicated in July, this is a terrible combination for the Democrats -- both an unusually large number of chambers are in play at the same time (32 percent of all chambers up this cycle -- the highest percentage recorded in the five cycles this author has been handicapping the legislatures), and there's a startlingly unprecedented lean toward one party, the GOP.

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. Instead, the typical ratio of vulnerable chambers between the parties has been close to even.

Putting it all together, we estimate that the Democrats are on the verge of losing a net of four to 12 Senate chambers and six to 15 House chambers. At the higher end of those ranges, the control numbers for state legislative chambers would be fully reversed. Today, there are significantly more Democratic-controlled state Houses and Senates. But if the GOP makes strong enough gains, it could hand the Republicans sizable leads in both chambers -- just as the decennial redistricting process is set to begin.

In all, we've shifted 18 chambers from their July ratings -- all in the Republicans' direction.

We moved three Republican-held chambers out of the "in play" category, which turns them into highly unlikely venues for a Democratic takeover. The three are the Montana Senate and the Tennessee House and Senate.

More worrisome for the Democrats, we shifted four Democratic chambers into the "in play" category for the first time. They are the Illinois House, the Oregon Senate and the Washington House and Senate. Once considered relatively safe, the greater risk in these chambers will force Democrats to expend more effort and money.

We also shifted three tossup chambers into the lean Republican category -- the tied Montana House, the Democratic-held Pennsylvania House and the Ohio House. And we shifted three lean Democratic chambers to tossups -- the Colorado House, the Maine Senate and the North Carolina Senate.

The remaining five shifts only address chambers that are not considered in play. Both chambers in Arizona and Florida shift from likely Republican to safe Republican, while the Maine House shifts from safe Democratic to likely Democratic.

While local factors have played a role in certain cases, we believe the major reason for the continuing shift to the Republicans on the state legislative front has been the national GOP wave. Democratic-held legislative chambers are especially vulnerable to this year's GOP wave, because the Democrats have gained chambers for several cycles running, providing Republicans with ample opportunities for takeovers.

The Democratic peril is especially high this year because it's a midterm election, and 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.

Perhaps most depressing for Democrats is that we see little prospect of the tide shifting back in the Democratic direction. In fact quite the opposite: In our view, there are 15 chambers which didn't shift enough for us to change the rating quite yet, but which are on the verge of shifting a notch in the GOP's direction in our next installment.

Those chambers are the Alabama House and Senate, the Alaska Senate, the Colorado Senate, the Delaware House, the Indiana House, the Iowa House and Senate, the Michigan House, the New Hampshire House and Senate, the New Mexico House, the North Carolina House and the Wisconsin House and Senate.

By contrast, we see only one chamber that might shift in the Democratic direction before Election Day -- the Texas House, which could go from likely Republican to lean Republican -- and one that could move in either direction, the New York Senate.

This is 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. The assessment is based on interviews with nearly 100 sources in the state capitals as well as with national political strategists.

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