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Far below the radar of the fiercely fought presidential race, Republicans and Democrats are competing for control of legislative chambers in 13 battleground states. Democrats suffered severe losses in the statehouses during the last two midterm elections, but surveys and analysts give them an advantage in 2016.
“This is shaping up as an opportunity year for Democrats,” says Tim Storey, who analyzes politics for the National Conference of State Legislatures. The opportunity exists in part because in the last two midterm elections Republicans won a slew of marginal congressional and legislative seats. These seats are at risk in a presidential year when the electorate contains a higher proportion of young and minority voters who tend to favor Democrats.
Republican legislative candidates have done spectacularly during the Obama years, winning a net of 816 seats. The GOP controls 67 of 98 partisan legislative chambers. Republicans have a majority in both chambers in 30 states; Democrats in only 12 with control split in seven states. (Nebraska has a unicameral, non-partisan chamber.) Republicans have 31 governors, the Democrats 18. Alaska’s governor is an independent.
Democratic legislative candidates could benefit from a Hillary Clinton victory. In the half-century since the Supreme Court mandated legislative redistricting on the basis of “one man, one vote,” the party winning the White House has gained an average of 129 state legislative seats.
Democratic chances appear bright in states with large numbers of Latinos, many of whom have been alienated by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposals to deport unauthorized immigrants and build a wall between the United States and Mexico. An August poll by Fox News Latino showed Clinton leading Trump 66 to 20 percent among Latinos. Republicans have received a steadily declining percentage of the Latino vote in recent presidential elections. George W. Bush received 40 percent in 2004, John McCain 31 percent in 2008 and Mitt Romney 27 per cent in 2012.
Latinos may hold the key to the presidential outcome in the swing states of Colorado, Florida and Nevada, in which they comprise from 14 to 18 percent of the eligible voters. In Colorado and Nevada, they could also decide control of the state senates, which Republicans control by a single seat in both states. Republicans also have a one-seat edge in the Washington Senate, where Latinos are 6.7 percent of the electorate. Republicans control the Senate in West Virginia by two seats, while Democrats have a two-seat edge in the Iowa Senate. The percentage of eligible Latino voters in these two states is negligible.
Latino turnout is a question mark. In recent elections 40 percent of eligible Latinos cast ballots compared to 60 percent of whites and African Americans. Many analysts expect a greater Latino turnout in 2016 because of negative reaction to Trump.
Another question is whether Latino resentment of Trump will cause long-term harm to the GOP. In 1994, running for re-election, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) backed an initiative (Proposition 187) that would have denied health and education benefits to unauthorized immigrants. The initiative won, although most of it was voided by the courts. Wilson won, too, but the percentage of Latinos voting Democratic in the Golden State increased and has remained high ever since.
Latino eligible voters in California now number nearly 7 million, the most of any state, with 62 percent registered Democratic and only 17 percent Republican. California has been dependably Democratic in presidential elections since 1992, but Latinos could make a difference in state elections as Democrats seek to regain the legislative super-majority they lost in the 2014 midterm election.
Beyond the five states listed above — Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Washington and West Virginia — where the margin of senate control is one or two votes, Storey lists 13 other chambers that could change hands. Democrats believe they have a chance to win the state senates in Wisconsin, where Republicans hold a 19-14 margin; Arizona, where the GOP margin is 18-12; Maine, where the margin is 20-15; and New Hampshire, where the margin is 13-9. Republicans are targeting the New Mexico Senate, which Democrats control by a 24-17 margin.
The New York Senate, which has bounced back and forth the last few years, is a target for both parties. Democrats hold a 32-31 majority but the chamber is run by a coalition of maverick Democrats aligned with the Republicans.
In the houses and assemblies Democrats hope to win Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. Democrats are defending slender majorities in Colorado, Kentucky and Washington. The Kentucky House is of particular interest because it’s a lake in a Republican sea, the lone chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats.
Incumbent governors have won 34 of 37 contested elections in presidential years since 1992. The only incumbent governor in obvious danger this year is North Carolina Republican Pat McCrory, who trails Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, according to an average of polls by RealClearPolitics. In Montana, Republican challenger Greg Gianforte is given an outside chance against Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who is leading in the polls.
Six of the dozen elections for governor this year are competitive. The Cook Political Report rates as toss-ups Missouri, New Hampshire, Washington, and Vermont, all states with Democratic governors not seeking re-election. Two states with Republican governors are rated as tossups by Cook: North Carolina and Indiana, where the governorship is open because Gov. Mike Pence is the GOP vice presidential nominee.
In the presidential race, the RealClearPolitics poll average gives Clinton a narrow lead over Trump in the popular vote and a larger lead in the all-important Electoral College, in which 270 electoral votes are required for victory. The RCP tally gives Clinton 209 electoral votes, Trump 154 and puts 175 in the toss-up category.
Republicans control Congress and are expected to hold the House by a reduced margin, according to RCP poll averages. The Cook Political Report predicts Democrats will gain 10 to 15 seats, short of the 30 they need to control the House.
It’s a different story in the Senate, where only 10 Democrats are up for re-election compared to 24 Republicans. Republicans would be running uphill even if Trump were not the nominee; President Obama in 2012 carried seven of the 24 Republican states and all the Democratic states. In states with a Republican senator the RCP polling average puts the Democratic candidate well ahead in Illinois and Wisconsin and competitive in seven other states: Arizona, Florida, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Nevada, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring, is the only Democratic-held seat where the RCP average gives the Republican candidate an even chance.
The Democrats need four seats to control the Senate if Clinton wins, five if she doesn’t. The latest RCP average shows Democrats gaining four Senate seats, which would produce a 50-50 tie and give the vice president the tie-breaking vote.
Statistician Nate Silver gives Clinton a 60 percent chance of winning but warns there is a high degree of uncertainty because 20 percent of voters say they are undecided or will vote for a third-party candidate. “High numbers of undecided and third-party voters are associated with higher volatility and larger polling errors,” Silver wrote on his FiveThirtyEight blog.
With both Trump and Clinton distrusted by a majority of voters, ticket splitting, once commonplace but rare in the present partisan era, could make a comeback. “This election is ready-made for ticket splitting,” says Stuart K. Spencer, a California political consultant who advised Ronald Reagan. In Storey’s view, however, this election is less about classic ticket-splitting than anxiety about Trump. Some Republicans may reject Trump but vote for every other GOP candidate on the ballot, he said.
Voter turnout is a mystery. Negative campaigns often depress turnout but Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report thinks turnout could be high because of “hatred” on both sides of the other party’s presidential candidate. Trump’s base — white, working-class voters with less than a college education — is usually a low-turnout segment of the electorate, but a recent CNN poll found slightly more enthusiasm among Trump supporters than their Clinton counterparts. Voter enthusiasm can be a barometer of turnout.
Get-out-the-vote efforts often make a difference in close elections, and Democrats have an organizational advantage. Clinton has 291 offices in 15 battleground states and Trump only 88, according to a tabulation by PBS NewsHour.
All in all, according to the polls and pundits, opportunities abound for the Democrats from the White House to the statehouses. It remains to be seen if these opportunities can be converted into victories on Election Day.