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By Pamela M. Prah, Stateline Staff Writer
The last time Republicans controlled a statehouse chamber in Alabama, Ulysses S. Grant was president and Thomas Edison still hadn’t perfected electric lighting.
But if the GOP’s gains are as big as many predict this election, Alabama could be one of many states that will see one or both statehouse chambers go from Democratic blue to Republican red. Democrats currently enjoy a 5-seat advantage in the Alabama Senate and a 15-seat advantage in the Alabama House. However, Tim Storey, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says that hold may not last.
“If Alabama were to move to the GOP column, it would reflect a 20-year trend of Southern legislatures re-aligning under the Republican banner,” Storey says. Democrats have been in power in the Alabama state House since 1870 and the Senate since 1872.
Who will control statehouses in 2011 is one of the big questions that voters in 46 states will answer on November 2, when they cast ballots for more than 6,000 legislative seats. Other state chambers that insiders say could flip to Republican control include the Senate in New Hampshire and New York; the House in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania; both chambers in Wisconsin; and the Montana House and Alaska Senate, both currently tied in terms of party control.
The outcome on Election Day will be particularly important because the legislatures will draw new congressional and state district lines in 2011. If one party or the other controls that process, members can draw maps that help their electoral chances — both at the state level and in the U.S. House of Representatives — for the next decade.
That’s why both parties are paying close attention to races such as one in the Cincinnati suburbs, where Democrats hope state Representative Connie Pillich can hold off a strong challenge from Republican Mike Wilson. Republicans need to gain only four seats to take control of the Ohio House. If Republicans hold their majority in the state Senate — and if Republican John Kasich defeats incumbent Governor Ted Strickland — the GOP could “carve the districts the way they like them,” says James Broussard, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.
Democrats may be playing defense in most of the country, but they hope to play some offense, too. They are particularly eyeing Texas, where they hope to gain a majority in the state House by swinging at least three seats, including a key one in Houston. If that happens, or if Democrat Bill White defeats Republican Rick Perry in the governor’s race, Republicans would be deprived of their lock on political control and its advantage in redrawing the political lines there.
Texas’ last redistricting effort in 2003 still riles Democrats. Back then, Texas approved a controversial mid-decade plan engineered by former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. That political map created a favorable environment for Republicans to go on and win six additional seats in Congress.
These districts in Texas and Ohio are among 55 that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has deemed “essential.” The group has committed to spending $20 million on races that will have the greatest impact on redistricting.
Republicans are pouring money into key statehouse races, as well. The Republican State Leadership Committee is running a $20 million initiative called REDMAP — it stands for Redistricting Majority Project. “To control the process — or at least have a seat at the table — winning, defending and increasing state legislative majorities must be a priority,” its Web site says.
If the 2010 election turns out to be an historic landslide for Republicans at the statehouse and gubernatorial levels, Storey says that the GOP could unilaterally control the drawing of some 165 U.S. House seats compared to only about 30 for Democrats. The rest of the seats would be in states with redistricting commissions or with divided partisan control.
History is not on the Democrats’ side. Going back to 1900, the party of the president lost seats in state legislatures in every midterm except 1934 and 2002, according to NCSL. In the 25 other midterm election years, the party holding the White House lost, on average, 495 state legislative seats. Although the Democrats have gained seats in each of the past three elections, that winning streak will be tough to continue this year. “Winning four election cycles in a row may be a thing of the past,” says Storey.
Currently, Democrats control both chambers in 27 states, Republicans in 14, and legislative control is divided in eight states (Nebraska is the only unicameral Legislature).
Louis Jacobson, a frequent contributor to Stateline, says the Democrats are on the verge of losing a net of four to 12 Senate chambers and six to 15 House chambers. “By far, this is the most lopsided split we've seen in any of the past five election cycles,” he says. Jacobson’s latest 50-state assessment for Governing assesses the chances of a change in party control in all state House and Senate chambers.
In the 2008 election, the South was the only part of the country where Republicans managed to gain seats — they won control of three legislative chambers in the region despite losing everywhere else. The gains are likely to continue this year, not just in Alabama but possibly in North Carolina and Tennessee, as well. Just a decade ago, Republicans controlled no legislative chambers in the South. Today, 15 chambers out of 28 in the South have a Republican majority.
Another factor that will weigh on the outcome is term limits. As Stateline has reported, term limits are forcing at least 380 state lawmakers to retire this year. In the Michigan Senate, term limits guarantee that the vast majority of seats will be held by new senators: 29 of the current 38 senators aren’t allowed to run for reelection.
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