Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
If 2006 turns out to be a Democratic year at the congressional level, fueled by anti-Bush and anti-corruption sentiments, does that also suggest big Democratic gains in state legislatures? Based on some recent special elections, the answer would seem to be yes.
Since 2004, 83 special legislative elections have resulted in 21 party switches, including 15 formerly GOP seats that Democrats picked up. In just the past five months, there have been 28 special elections for legislative seats around the country. Ten seats have switched party--and all but one of them have gone from Republican to Democratic representation. Many of those changes have come in states that tilt to the GOP in national politics, such as Kentucky, Missouri, Texas and Virginia.
"Clearly, this is not just a random set of events," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. "Given an opportunity, I imagine there are some Democrats happy to take it out on Republicans--but probably there are also some Republicans staying home."
The latter effect could be more significant. Alex Johnson, executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, is right to point out that national issues such as Iraq and Hurricane Katrina don't play a direct role in many state campaigns. And several of the recently victorious Democrats attribute their own successes to local or state issues that won't matter elsewhere. "On the ground, it felt like it was not party-based," says Terri Bonoff, a new Democratic state senator from the suburbs of Minneapolis.
But because legislative contests are relatively low-profile affairs, the overall political mood could have a big impact on who shows up to vote. If significant numbers of Republicans choose to express their frustration by staying away from the polls this November, Democrats could find themselves gaining not only seats but also legislative chambers. At the moment, Republicans control 49 of the 98 partisan chambers in legislatures nationwide. Democrats control 47, and 2 are tied. But perhaps a third of the chambers are close enough to be in play. "In some years, Republicans don't have to work hard, knock on doors and raise money," says Republican strategist Johnson. "This year, they do."
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