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HomeSpotlight Story | Bird’s Eye View | Budget & Taxes | Politics & Leadership | Governors | Hot Issues | Once Around the Statehouse Lightly
The pendulum of politics that in many states has swung Republican for the last eight years appears to be heading in a Democratic direction in the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
Nonpartisan analysts and pollsters give Democrats a solid chance to win nine to 15 legislative chambers and as many as 11 governorships currently in GOP hands. If this happens, Democrats would make a big dent in overcoming the majorities Republicans have rolled up in statehouses since their breakthrough midterm election in 2010.
Even Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, head of the Republican Governors Association, expects Democratic gains, but the magnitude of the anticipated blue wave remains a mystery because many races are razor close. Governors’ races in eight states, seven of which now have Republican governors, are toss-ups in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average of polls. All are within the margin of polling error.
Donald Trump won’t be on the ballot in November, but the controversial and outspoken president has energized the Democratic resurgence. Democrats and many independents, especially suburban women, tell pollsters they are angry at Trump for various reasons. Anger tends to promote turnout; voters rarely go to the polls to say thank you.
In addition to the Trump burden, Republicans carry the heavy weight of history. The first midterm election of a presidency has usually been a negative referendum on the president. The party out of power in the White House has won 27 of the last 29 midterms with gains averaging 412 legislative seats.
These legislative elections often mirror the results of elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. Writing in State Legislatures, the magazine of the National Conference of State Legislators, Tim Storey and Wendy Underhill observe that less than 20 percent of voters can name even a single state legislator, a sad truth which means that state elections invariably reflect national politics.
Democrats are in need of a rebound at every level after losing 958 state legislative seats, 12 governorships, 62 U.S. House seats and 11 U.S. Senate seats during the eight years of the Obama presidency. These losses had consequences. With Congress frequently gridlocked, Republican legislative majorities pushed through a conservative agenda in many states on issues ranging from abortion to taxes.
Going into this year’s elections, Republicans hold a 33-16 edge in governorships. Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska is an independent. The GOP controls both legislative chambers in 31 states. Democrats control both chambers in 14 states and party control is split in four states: Connecticut and Minnesota because of tied senates, and Colorado and Maine, where Republicans control the senates and Democrats have the houses.
These numbers, lopsided as they are, slightly understate Republican dominance. Nebraska has a unicameral legislative chamber that is technically non-partisan but Republican in all but name. Republicans are a minority in the New York Senate but wield power through a power-sharing agreement with maverick Democrats. The situation is reversed in the Alaska House, where the GOP has a majority but Democrats control the chamber through an alliance with dissident Republicans.
If the blue wave this year is a normal one, Storey says that Democrats could win both houses in Arizona, assuming they energize Latino voters. He gives Democrats a strong chance of winning the Colorado Senate, where Republicans have a one-vote edge, and the tied Connecticut Senate.
Other likely Democratic pickups in a normal wave, says Storey, include the Maine, New Hampshire and Wisconsin senates, and the New York Senate, where Democrats hope to elect enough loyalists to shatter the power-sharing agreement. The New Hampshire House may also flip to the Democrats.
In a big wave, says Storey, Democrats could also win the houses in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, the senates in Florida and Iowa and both houses in Michigan.
Louis Jacobson of Governing magazine, who conducted a detailed analysis of legislative elections in every state, finds that party control could flip in 11 chambers now held by Republicans compared to only four held by Democrats.
Overall, Jacobson’s analysis is less optimistic for the Democrats than Storey’s. Jacobson finds that the New York Senate and both New Hampshire chambers lean Democratic but believes the Arizona, Iowa and Florida senates and the Minnesota house lean Republican and that the Michigan Senate is likely Republican. Other states on the Storey list are rated as tossups.
Jennifer Duffy, who assesses governors’ races for the Cook Political Report, says Democrats seem assured of pickups in three states now held by Republicans – Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico – and are competitive in nine other states with Republican governors.
The RCP average of polls is also bullish about Democratic chances in governors’ races. It rates Illinois, where incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner trails Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker by double digits, as likely Democratic and Maine, Missouri and New Mexico, where Republican governors are retiring, as leaning Democratic.
Two states with Republican governors who are seeking re-election and five states in which GOP governors are termed out – Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Nevada and Ohio – are rated as tossups in the RCP averages.
The embattled GOP incumbents are Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Reynolds trails Democratic businessman Fred Hubbell, by 3.5 percent in the RCP polling averages. Walker is 3.6 percent behind Democrat Tony Evers, the state schools superintendent.
In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former State House minority leader, is bidding to become the Peach State’s first African-American governor. She started as an underdog in a state that voted for Trump, but trails Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee, by two points or less in four polls, meaning that the race is effectively tied. A third candidate in the race could force a Dec. 4 runoff between Abrams and Kemp.
Alaska is a Republican bright spot in the gubernatorial races. Republican Mike Dunleavy leads independent Gov. Walker and Democrat Mark Begich by more than 20 points in the two polls taken of this race.
Republicans are proving unexpectedly competitive in Oregon where GOP nominee Knute Buehler, a state representative and physician, is challenging Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. She leads by 3.7 percent in the RCP poll average.
A few caveats. “Probability” is not the same as “inevitability,” as journalistic statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight told Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post. For instance, said Silver, although Democrats are favored to win the House and Republicans to retain control of the Senate, there’s a 40 percent chance that one party could win both houses of Congress.
In the states Republicans would be happy to break even in the tossup governors’ races and hold Democrats to single-digit gains in legislative chambers. Conversely, Democrats would celebrate winning more than a dozen legislative chambers and a majority of the gubernatorial toss-ups.
Another caveat is the difficulty of assessing the impact of the Trump effect. Trump is unpopular, but his current Gallup approval rating of 43 percent is not far behind President Barack Obama’s rating of 45 percent in November 2010 when Republicans took control of Congress and picked up 680 legislative seats, capturing 20 legislative chambers that had been held by Democrats.
Democrats can’t duplicate this feat. The Republicans followed up on their victories in many states with redistrictings in 2011 that protected potentially vulnerable GOP state legislators and House members. These redistrictings, says Storey, are “the Republican firewall.”
But if Democrats catch a large wave, says Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, they could replicate the 2006 midterm election in which they took control of the U.S. House and gained 10 state legislative chambers.
This year’s elections, important in their own right, are also the first step in the redistrictings that will occur in 2021 based on the 2020 census. Thirty-two of the 34 governors who are elected this year will be in office in 2021. So will more than 800 of the legislators elected on Nov. 6.
On a national level the elections will show if the Democrats are able to provide a counter-weight to President Trump by taking control of the House of Representatives, saving the Affordable Care Act, and laying the foundation for a realistic challenge to the presidency in 2020.
In the states the elections will determine if Democrats can reverse the Republican momentum of the past eight years and have greater say on the vital issues that will confront states in the next decade: education, health care, climate change, the opioid crisis, immigration and voting laws, to name a few.
As always in our democracy, it will be the voters, not the pundits or the pollsters, who have the last word on Election Day. And as they demonstrated in 2016, voters are capable of surprises.