NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Democrats are likely to make gains in state legislative races this year, but it's a toss-up whether the seats they win will be enough to overtake control of a handful of narrowly divided statehouses, a panel of election experts said at the National Conference of State Legislatures
annual conference here.
"The 2006 state legislative elections could rival those of the historic 1994 elections when the GOP picked up more than 500 statehouse seats," Tim Storey, who specializes in statehouse elections at NCSL, said. Historically, the party that controls the White House loses statehouse seats during midterm elections.
On top of that, President Bush's approval ratings have been hovering in the 30 percent range while recent polls suggest that voters are angry and that incumbents could have a tough time. "At the end of the day, it will be the Democrats that have the most to gain," Storey said.
Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, predicted his party could pick up as many as 150 seats this fall, but said it was uncertain whether the newly won seats "are going to be in the right spot to flip legislatures" to the Democrats' control.
His counterpart, Republican State Leadership Committee spokesman Alex Johnson, conceded the GOP would lose some statehouse seats this election year. "We're in a protection mode this year," he said. The GOP has majorities in both legislative chambers in 20 states compared to Democrats' control of 19 statehouses.
"It's no secret that it's going to be a challenge for Republicans this year," Johnson said.
Ten statehouses are divided between the parties; in the Iowa Senate and the Montana House, Democrats and Republicans are tied. (Nebraska has the nation's only nonpartisan and unicameral legislature.)
Storey laid out what he called the top 10 state legislatives election battlefields and once again Colorado, Indiana, Maine and Montana make the group's list, as they did in 2004.
In all, 46 states will hold elections for their legislatures this year, with 83 percent of the nation's 7,382 lawmakers' seats on the line. Storey said 17 state Senates could switch power with shifts in three or fewer seats while control in 12 House chambers could change with a shift in five or fewer seats.
Here are Storey's analysis and top 10 statehouse battlegrounds, listed in alphabetical order:
- Colorado House and Senate - Democrats will be defending a five-seat majority in the House and a one-seat margin in the Senate.
- Indiana House - Control of the Indiana House has changed six of the past nine elections, with the Republicans currently enjoying a four-seat majority.
- Iowa House and Senate - The Iowa Senate is tied and Republicans have a two-seat advantage in the House.
- Maine House and Senate - Democrats have a three-seat majority in the House and control the Senate by one.
- Minnesota House - Democrats need to switch two seats to take control from the Republicans.
- Montana House - The lower chamber is tied going into the election and both parties are fielding candidates in 82 of the 100 House races.
- North Carolina House - GOP needs four switches to regain control of a chamber where ethics dominated the latest session.
- Oklahoma Senate - All seven of the incumbent senators who reached term limits this year are Democrats. Republicans need to pick up three seats to take control.
- Oregon House - Democrats need four seats to take over and this election may be their best chance in 15 years to take control.
- Tennessee Senate -Republicans, who won control of the Senate in 2004 for the first time in more than 100 years, have a three-seat majority.
The panel agreed that this November's election will shine a brighter spotlight on statehouse elections following the U.S. Supreme Court decision this year in Texas that gave states the green light to redraw congressional maps without having to wait for updated U.S. Census data every 10 years, the traditional approach. "State legislatures are rising in importance," Davies of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said. "States have the final word on redistricting."