The Week in Politics: State Legislative Race Predictions, a New Voter Registration Rule and Campaign Problems

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | February 5, 2016

This was a busy week in politics -- but then, practically every week is. That's why Governing is offering this new weekly newsletter.

We won't cover the presidential campaign -- you can find plenty of that elsewhere. Instead, we aim to share with you the most interesting and important developments in state and local politics.

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In Legislatures, Tough to Turn Back the GOP Tide

Republicans hold big majorities in state legislatures, and that's not likely to change this year. At least according to Shap Smith, who's not only the Democratic speaker of the Vermont House but a board member of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), an organization whose mission is to elect more Democrats nationwide.

"I don't see any structural change right now that would allow us to take a bunch of houses back," said Smith. "I do think this [Republican] high-water mark is likely to last at least another cycle or two."

Following the GOP's sweeping success in the 2014 elections, Republicans control 68 of the nation's 99 legislative chambers. They have supermajorities in a substantial number of them.

Democrats clearly want to win back several of the chambers lost in 2014, including the Maine Senate, the Minnesota House and the Washington Senate. One of their best opportunities may be in Nevada, where some Republicans concede that holding onto the two chambers could be a challenge in a presidential year.

"The GOP is playing so much defense this year," said DLCC communications director Carolyn Fiddler. "Our recruiting efforts this cycle have been incredibly successful. We're running a ton of really strong candidates with deep ties to their communities."

Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, admits that his party will have to play defense in his state too to hold on to some of the seats it's accumulated. "We have 63 of the 99 members of the Assembly in a state that hasn't voted Republican for president since 1984," said Vos.

At a time when more people are voting a straight party line, the outcome of the presidential election will strongly influence legislative results.

Speaking at Governing's annual Outlook conference Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Vos said he expected Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee, and added that he didn't think she would hurt Democrats downballot. But, he said, "if it's Ted Cruz or Donald Trump [on the Republican side], I think it will have negative downballot effects for candidates in our party." (Vos is backing Marco Rubio in the presidential race).

Despite any possible headwinds from the top of the ticket and the amount of ground the GOP has already conquered, Vos predicted that "Republicans will continue to dominate state legislatures, probably until the next redistricting," and insisted there are still a few pickup opportunities for them.

He cited, for example, the ground the GOP has already gained in the Kentucky House through recent party-switching. Control of that chamber -- the only one still held by Democrats in the South -- could soon be tied, depending on how four special elections play out next month.

Speaker Smith, while rooting for a different result, doesn't argue with that analysis. Over the medium to long term, Smith believes demographic changes will come to favor Democrats at the legislative level, putting some Western chambers into play and even some in the South in the not-too-distant future.

But some of the party's best chances may not be ready for the plucking until 2018 or 2020, said Smith. "I look at the map this year and it could go a couple of chambers either way," he said. "But we're not going to see a huge change this year in state legislatures."

Odds and Ends

A New Voter Registration Rule: The federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has given the greenlight to states wanting to require voters to show proof of citizenship when they register.

Brian Newby, EAC's new executive director, sent letters to Alabama, Georgia and Kansas last Friday approving changes to their instructions on federal voter registration forms. Newby, an ally of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, insisted in an interview with MSNBC that the change was strictly administrative. But it represents a shift in policy, since the agency had twice previously refused to approve the change in Kansas.

Thomas Hicks, the lone Democratic commissioner, complained that Newby had overstepped his authority. The move can now only be undone by a unanimous vote of the three commissioners -- which is unlikely -- or through a legal challenge.

Campaign Legal Problems: A federal grand jury has subpoenaed records from recent campaigns run by Allison Lundergan Grimes, the secretary of state in Kentucky.

Before her successful re-election bid in November, the Democrat ran a high-profile challenge in 2014 against Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate majority leader. Republicans complained that she received illegal in-kind contributions for that race. Documents have also been subpoenaed from her father Jerry Lundergan, a former legislator and state party chair whose companies provided more than $60,000 worth of services to her Senate campaign.

Grimes' attorneys insist that neither she nor her father are targets of the investigation. "She has great confidence in the integrity and the skill of the members of her campaigns who worked tirelessly to ensure compliance with all campaign rules and regulations,” said attorney David Guarnieri in a statement.

New York Sets a Date: The former constituents of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos will be getting new representation soon. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set April 19 as the date for special elections to fill their seats, along with two other vacancies. Silver, the former Assembly speaker, and Skelos, the former Senate majority leader, each resigned and was convicted on federal corruption charges last year.

Everyone's a Critic: GOP Gov. Robert Bentley of Alabama gave his State of the State address on Tuesday. Nothing unusual there. More surprising was the fact that another statewide elected official of his own party, State Auditor Jim Zeigler, chose to deliver a rebuttal to the governor's speech. Zeigler detailed a list of policy areas where he disagreed with Bentley, saying the matters on which they do agree is shorter.