The Week in Politics: The GOP Goes for More Legislative Seats, de Blasio's Bad Week and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | April 15, 2016

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Have Republicans Peaked At the Legislative Level?

With control of 69 of the nation's 99 legislative chambers, Republicans have to be feeling pretty good right about now. But they don't have a lot of room left for growth.

Justin Richards, who is the political director of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), put out a memo earlier this month outlining the party's political position this year. Naturally, he was optimistic, despite listing only a few opportunities for pickups.

Richards laid out the potential for victory in the Colorado House, the Iowa Senate, the New Mexico Senate and the Washington House -- all chambers where the GOP is within two or three seats of taking control. He also noted that the party hopes to win a few of the Oregon House seats being left open by Democratic retirements.

The RSLC is particularly confident about its chances in the Kentucky House, the last chamber in the South controlled by Democrats. Republicans won't win without a fight, though. Democrats managed to hold onto the Kentucky House last month by winning three out of four special elections. "We're off to a strong start this year with big wins in the Kentucky House special elections," said Carolyn Fiddler, communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). "If these trends continue, 2016 will be an extremely successful year for Democrats."

The DLCC's materials point to several chambers as possible pickup targets. That's to be expected, since Republicans took control of so many chambers in 2014. Democrats have a good chance of regaining control of the Minnesota House, the New Mexico House, the Washington Senate and both chambers in Nevada, among others.

In a typical election cycle, control of a dozen chambers changes hands. But Democrats, if only because they're so low right now, have more potential upside at this point.

In his memo, Richards pointed to the popularity of Republican governors and the poor approval ratings of Democratic governors in various states as evidence that GOP legislative candidates will fare well in many states this November. That may be so, but probably the top of the ticket -- the presidential nominees -- will have a much greater effect on how legislative contests end up going.

Bad Week for de Blasio

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was criticized in national and social media this week for making a racially-tinged joke in a skit with Hillary Clinton at a dinner in Manhattan on Saturday. As part of the skit, de Blasio said he was late to endorse her candidacy because he was "running on CP time."

Clinton responded that she had also been on "cautious politician time." But since CP time typically refers to "colored people time," de Blasio has taken some heat. For her part, Clinton did not hesitate to blame the mayor for the skit's insensitivity.

More ominously, an ongoing federal probe of corruption in the New York Police Department has been tied to donors to de Blasio's 2013 campaign. Four top police commanders were reassigned last week as part of the fallout from the investigation. A fifth was transferred on Wednesday.

Two businessmen, Jona Rechnitz and Jeremy Reichberg, are reportedly under investigation for trading cash for favors from the police. Both gave thousands of dollars to de Blasio's campaign and served on his inaugural campaign committee. "I know of no favorable municipal action that they got," de Blasio told reporters on Monday. He also said he didn't know the "specific process" of how members of the inauguration committee had been selected.

More Crime and Punishment

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was indicted by a county grand jury last year, now faces similar charges in a civil lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday. The Republican stands accused of misleading investors in a technology company, which he denies.

In California, Esteban Nuñez was released from prison on Monday after serving less than six years for manslaughter. Nuñez, the son of former Assembly Democratic Speaker Fabian Nuñez, had his sentence dramatically reduced by exiting GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011. A pair of courts have since found Schwarzenegger's actions "repugnant" and smacking of "back-room dealings," but upheld his authority to commute the sentence.

In an unusual move, Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell has banished GOP state Rep. Jeremy Durham to a new office building and forbidden him contact with nearly all legislative staff and interns, pending a continuing investigation. A report from the state Attorney General Herbert Slatery found that Durham "made inappropriate comments of a sexual nature or engaged in inappropriate physical contact with some women." Slatery, whose office interviewed 34 people, added that Durham may pose a "continuing risk to unsuspecting women." His investigation is continuing.

Odds and Ends

Initiatives as Leverage: This space noted recently that lawmakers in some states are approving minimum wage increases in hopes of beating back ballot measures that would be more generous. Thad Kousser, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego, noted that using ballot measures to put pressure on legislators is now an intentional feature of the process in California.

"A coalition of reform groups pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 1253 in 2014, [so] the sponsors of a proposition can now withdraw it from the ballot even after it has gained enough signatures to become eligible to qualify," Kousser wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune. "With this reform in place, labor leaders could use the stick of their [minimum-wage] ballot measure, but offer lawmakers the carrot of pulling it back when they reached a deal."

Omaha Remains in Play: Nebraska and Maine are the only states that grant a portion of their electoral votes by congressional district. An effort to move to a winner-take-all system failed in the Nebraska Senate on Tuesday, with backers falling one vote shy of the total necessary to end a filibuster.

L.A. Film Heritage Dispute: In one bit of lighter news, Los Angeles Councilmember Phil Kerkorian appears likely to survive a recall attempt that's being launched by residents. They're angry he gave the green light to a developer to tear down a house that Marilyn Monroe once lived in.