Buried by Bad New? Signs Point to Huge GOP Gains in Legislative Chambers. but the Question Remains: How Far Might the Democrats Fall?

By Storey, Tim | State Legislatures, October-November 2010 | Go to article overview

Buried by Bad New? Signs Point to Huge GOP Gains in Legislative Chambers. but the Question Remains: How Far Might the Democrats Fall?


Storey, Tim, State Legislatures


On Election Night 2008, Democrats were euphoric after winning the White House for the first time in eight years.

They also netted more than 100 state legislative seats, giving them control of almost 56 percent of the partisan state legislative seats and majority control of 60 of the nation's 99 legislative chambers--the highest numbers in 15 years.

As this year's election nears, Democrats are far from euphoric. They are playing electoral defense in almost every state, and Republicans are poised to make gains across the country.

Ask any voter, candidate, pundit or pollster what the key issues are for this election and you get the same answer--it's all about the pocketbook. That is not going to help Democrats. The U.S. economy continues to stumble toward any kind of bona fide recovery. High unemployment, a stagnant housing market and ongoing foreclosures are taxing consumer confidence. Political guru Charlie Cook, who publishes the Cook Political Report, thinks the sour economy will spell big trouble for Democratic candidates.

"With 9.5 percent unemployment, 1 million home foreclosures this year, a president with a low approval rating, Republican voters highly motivated, Democratic voters lethargic, and independent voters pretty upset with Democrats," Cook says, "it is safe to assume Democrats are going to lose a lot of state legislative seats this year."

In terms of controlling legislatures, Democrats enter this election in the best position they've been in since before the 1994 election. That's when the GOP gained 514 legislative seats, winning control of 20 chambers in the first midterm election under President Clinton. On average, 13 chambers switch control in every election, and not all in one direction, as in 1994.

BY THE NUMBERS

The big question, as Nov. 2 approaches, is: Will this election, like 1994, be a nightmare for Democrats? Or can they hold on so they're in the driver's seat when legislatures embark on redistricting of U.S. House and state legislative maps early next year?

Out of 7,382 total state legislative seats, 6,115 in 46 states are up for election. Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia hold legislative races in odd-numbered years. In Kansas, New Mexico and South Carolina, only House seats, not Senate ones, are up. And Nebraska has a unicameral Legislature that is chosen in nonpartisan elections.

Both major parties are fielding candidates in only about 75 percent of state legislative races. And in only about 25 states are the Democratic and Republican numbers close enough for the minority party to have a realistic chance to come out on top.

There also will be 20 House seats decided in American Samoa, 15 Senate seats in Guam and 15 Senate seats in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

After adding five chambers in 2008, Democrats have been in charge of most legislatures for the past two years. In 27 states, Democrats control both chambers; Republicans do so in 14 states. In eight states, legislative control is split.

Democrats have a majority of seats in 60 of the 99 state chambers. That is the most chambers held by either party since 1994 when Democrats held 64. Republicans currently have the majority in 36 chambers. Two legislative bodies are tied--the Alaska Senate and Montana House. There are 4,048 Democratic state legislators, 3,251 Republicans and 22 third-party lawmakers. Nebraska has 49 nonpartisan senators and the remaining seats are vacant.

TURNOVERS AND TERM LIMITS

Turnover in legislatures is expected to be average, although it might tick up slightly if voters are in an anti-incumbent mood. Typically, about 20 percent of legislators are new following every election. The highest turnover will undoubtedly be in states with legislative term limits.

Fourteen of the 15 states with term limits for state lawmakers hold elections in 2010, and 380 incumbent legislators are barred from seeking reelection. …

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