More Incumbents Losing Grasp on State Legislature Seats

Voters aren't waiting until November to express their anger. With 14 states still to hold their primary contests, already 135 incumbent state legislators have lost their seats.
by | August 10, 2012
Kansas state Senate President Steve Morris, center, was ousted in last week's primary. (Photo: AP/John Hanna)

Voters aren't waiting until November to express their anger. With 14 states still to hold their primary contests, already 135 incumbent state legislators have lost their seats.  

That's up from 2010's pace, when 96 incumbents lost. Some of the difference is due to pairs of incumbents being drawn into the same districts. Still, according to elections expert Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, "This is more incumbent losses than you can explain with redistricting."

Most notably this week, a group of moderate Republican senators in Kansas were ousted in Tuesday's primary, including Senate President Steve Morris.

Since Morris served until Thursday as NCSL's president, his defeat was a topic of considerable discussion at the group's annual meeting in Chicago this week.

If some voters are unhappy with their officeholders, they're also unhappy with some of the laws that have been passed. A total of 12 new laws are being challenged by popular referenda this fall -- a larger number than has been seen since the 1920s, says Jennie Bowser, an NCSL senior fellow who, like Storey, spoke at an elections panel on Thursday.

Voters will consider measures that would turn back labor reforms, tax increases and, in Maryland and Washington State, legislation to allow same-sex marriage.

The growth in popular referenda may not last, Bowser suggested, but at the moment appears to be part of the same wave of dissatisfaction that has been driving other expressions of voter discontent such as recall elections. "It's this political tug of war," she said. "This is the tug back."

Overall, Storey suggested that this November may see roughly the normal amount of political change at the state level. With only 11 governorships on the line, "The battle for the states is in the legislatures," Storey said.

Republicans made historic gains in 2010, taking control of 22 legislative chambers and winning more seats than at any time since the 1920s. As such, they may not have many opportunities to pick up much more, Storey suggested.

"The GOP is riding high," he said. "It almost makes them their own worst enemy, because it gives them little ground to gain."

Democrats may also be helped in some chambers that are under hot contention due to redistricting, particularly in places where maps were drawn by commissions or the courts such as Colorado, Maine and Minnesota, Storey said.

But Republicans also have good shots at winning chambers in states including Nevada and New Mexico -- as well as Wisconsin, where Democrats control the Senate by a one-seat margin after the series of recall elections this year and last.

Storey highlighted Arkansas, which is the last Southern state that has not fallen into Republican hands. He noted that as recently as 1990, Republicans did not control a single chamber in the South.

But the GOP needs only three seats to take command of the Arkansas Senate and five seats to gain the House. They may be helped by the expected weak performance in their state of President Obama.

Obama lost Arkansas by 19 points in 2008 and this fall "will get beat like a drum," according to one legislator from the state.

In addition to candidate contests, voters will face about 145 ballot measures nationwide, including more than 40 initiatives, Bowser said.

The number of initiatives peaked in the mid-1990s but is coming back up, perhaps in part because of the desire of an entire "industry" now tied to the initiative process to gather signatures and fuel campaigns.

There's a debate among scholars as to whether the presence of controversial ballot measures helps drive turnout, as was reputed to be the case in 2004, when a same-sex marriage ban in Ohio was widely considered to have helped bring out conservatives who helped put President George W. Bush over the top there.

Bowser said she's skeptical. But she noted that ballot measures do appear to increase turnout by three to four percent overall.

There are controversial measures on the ballot in only a few of the presidential swing states this fall, she said. Minnesota voters will decide on voter ID and same-sex marriage questions, while New Hampshire voters can decide whether to approve a prohibition on personal income taxes.

Florida voters face several heated questions regarding matters such as compulsory health insurance purchases, a stricter state spending cap, limitation of public funding of abortion and the same sort of religious freedom initiative that has been seen in other states -- such as Missouri, which overwhelmingly approved its measure on Tuesday.

Voters in numerous states will face ballot measures that will have a familiar air, either because they are repeats of ideas that have been tried before within their state or they have been on ballots elsewhere, such as tax increases and limitations, casinos, pension benefits and hunting rights.


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