No Party for the GOP? Clinton's Mid-Term Election Was Bad News for Democrats Who Lost 500 Legislative Seats. Some Prognosticators Think Republicans Could Suffer That Fate This Year

By Storey, Tim | State Legislatures, September 2006 | Go to article overview

No Party for the GOP? Clinton's Mid-Term Election Was Bad News for Democrats Who Lost 500 Legislative Seats. Some Prognosticators Think Republicans Could Suffer That Fate This Year


Storey, Tim, State Legislatures


With fewer than 70 days to go before the 2006 elections, all signs point to major change possibly on a scale not seen since the last "tidal wave" election in 1994. Analysts then predicted that the Democratic base was too demoralized to get out the vote but that Republican voters were energized and eager to make the vote a referendum on Bill Clinton's first two years in office. The prognosticators were right; Democrats got walloped in legislative races, losing more than 500 seats in legislatures.

Many political analysts think conditions in 2006 are similar to those in 1994 with Republicans poised to sit this one out and many voters likely to cast their vote based on their opinion of the George W. Bush administration and the direction the country is going.

Early signs indicate that swing voters are agitated and could unleash their wrath on incumbents making this a volatile year of change. That news has GOP candidates nervous.

"The situation for Republicans has for months looked more dire than it did for Democrats in 1994--the last landslide election," says Tom Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But surprisingly, unlike 1994, the two parties are neck-and-neck as they head into the homestretch of the 2006 campaign. Democrats held nearly 60 percent of all state legislative seats in 1994, but emerged clinging only to a thin 52 percent majority.

Washington political analyst Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, agrees with Mann that this election is starting to look like 1994 and is sounding a warning for Republicans as they enter the post-Labor Day campaign season. "Based on national polling data like right direction/wrong track, Congress' job approval, the generic congressional ballot test and the president's job approval ratings, there is no doubt in my mind that there is a very significant tidal wave headed toward the Republican Party this November. It is a wave bigger than 1982 and potentially on par with 1974 and 1994."

Republican strategists believe that they can counter the doomsayers by emphasizing core issues like smaller government and lower taxes.

"Everybody will tell you that this is going to be a challenging year for Republicans," says Alex Johnson, executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (RLCC). And those early warning signs are lighting a fire under his candidates, he says. "Our committee has set records for fundraising this year. And if our guys work hard and knock on doors, we'll be fine."

Johnson's counterpart at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), Michael Davies, is cautiously optimistic about Democratic prospects in the fall. "Our base is very energized, and our candidate filings are way up," he says. "We're definitely going to pick up seats, but will they be in the right places?"

WHAT'S AT STAKE

The vast majority of legislative seats are in play this year with 83 percent of the 7,382 legislative seats up for grabs. All but four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia) will hold legislative elections in 2006. In Kansas, New Mexico and South Carolina only representatives, not senators, are up for election this year.

To say that the two parties are "even" in their control of state legislatures doesn't do justice to exactly how tight the margin is between Democrats and Republicans. It seems states are entrenched in a prolonged era of sharply divided control of legislatures and state government in general. Out of the total 7,382 legislative seats in the country, Democrats have a minute 21-seat advantage as of early July. In other words, they have a negligible, yet symbolic, lead that constitutes a tiny fraction of 1 percent. On the other hand, the GOP controls more legislatures outright and more chambers. The pre-election breakdown of state legislative control is 20 Republican, 19 Democrat and 10 split. (This total adds to only 49 states because Nebraska's senators run in nonpartisan elections for the unicameral Nebraska Legislature. …

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