Democrats Seeking Comeback in State Legislatures
By Josh Goodman, Staff Writer
In March, Darrin Williams learned that he had won the job of a lifetime and was poised to make history. But there are a few obstacles to overcome before he can claim his prize.
Williams was picked by his Democratic colleagues in the Arkansas House of Representatives to be the state’s next Speaker of the House starting next January. The 44-year old lawyer and church deacon stands to become the highest-ranking black elected official in Arkansas history.
But Bruce Westerman and his fellow House Republicans hope to make some history of their own. In 2010, Republicans clawed closer to a majority in the Arkansas House. They’re optimistic they can make up the difference in this fall’s elections. “When we do that,” says Westerman, the Republican leader, “it will be the first Republican majority since Reconstruction.”
If that happens, Williams likely will not become speaker — next year or ever. “I can’t really deal in possibilities,” he says. “I have a job to do and I have to get ready to do that job. I’ll let the elections take care of themselves.”
Many legislators aren’t so sanguine. In November, three-quarters of the nation’s state legislative seats will be on the ballot. With only 11 governorships up this fall, it’s the legislative races that will do the most to determine the direction of state policy over the next two years.
The 2012 legislative elections give Democrats their first chance to bounce back nationally from the Republican landslide victories in 2010, which gave the GOP more legislative seats than it has had since 1928. As of this June, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in state legislatures 3,975 to 3,391. While the political environment has improved for Democrats, the party’s efforts are complicated by the once-a-decade redistricting process, which Republicans in several states used to solidify their new gains. Furthermore, Republicans aren’t content merely to play defense—as evidenced by their ambitions in Arkansas and elsewhere.
Arkansas: Republican Aspirations
Much more is at stake in Arkansas than Williams’ title. Despite its right-leaning electorate, Arkansas has mostly missed out on the wave of new conservative laws enacted in much of the country over the last two years. If Republicans win majorities in the Arkansas House and Senate this year, the agenda will change.
In April, House Republicans detailed their policy program in what they called the “SIMPLE Plan.” Included were many favorite conservative causes—everything from income tax cuts to abortion restrictions to tort revision and voter I.D. “The SIMPLE Plan is just a regurgitation of the national Republican playbook,” Williams complains.
That playbook might work this year in Arkansas. Republicans made substantial gains in the Arkansas Senate as well as the House in 2010, but Democrats still held their majorities in both. Yet, unlike in most states, the environment may be worse for Democrats in Arkansas in 2012 than it was in 2010.
That year, Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, won every county in the state. This year, President Obama, who took only 39 percent of the vote in Arkansas four years ago, is the top Democrat running. Republicans plan to use Obama to their advantage by linking Arkansas Democrats to the federal health care law: Beebe and other Democrats have said they’re open to expanding Medicaid, while many Republicans are opposed.
“Based on the preliminary polling and the candidates we have, I’m very optimistic we’re going to gain control of the House and the Senate as well,” Westerman says. But Williams expects Democrats in the House to hold their majority and perhaps even expand it.
Maine: Referendum on Republicans
In states where Republicans have already had a chance to enact their agenda, the elections will, at least in part, represent a judgment on those policies. Democrats’ best chance to win back chambers they lost in 2010 are in Democratic-leaning or politically competitive states, including Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Oregon (where the House is tied) and Pennsylvania.
In 2010, Maine — a state where the GOP has had little success over the last two decades — gave Republicans the House, Senate and governorship. That result was one of the year’s biggest surprises anywhere in the country. Despite their tenuous majorities, Republicans have succeeded in enacting an ambitious agenda, including income tax cuts, spending cuts, and regulatory changes designed to bolster businesses.
Democrats believe the Republicans overreached not only substantively, but also rhetorically. The Senate Democrats’ first TV ad branded five Republican incumbents as “rubber stamps” for Paul LePage, the state’s sharp-tongued governor. “So many Mainers are so embarrassed by our governor and his statements,” says Justin Alfond, minority leader in the Maine Senate. “We’re using the governor strategically to highlight his extreme, ideological agenda.”
But Robert Nutting, Maine’s Republican House speaker, says Democrats may now be the ones who are overstepping. Some signs point to LePage regaining his political footing lately. “We have a governor who is very outspoken and plain-talking and they see him as a way to link us Republicans all together,” Nutting says. “I think the governor’s popularity in Maine is pretty good. As best we can tell it’s around 50 percent. He’s very popular in some parts of the state and less so in others.”
Still, it’s clear the Republicans’ narrow majorities are in danger. In February, Democrats won a special election for a Maine Senate seat that had long been in Republican hands. When Lou Jacobson of Governing Magazine evaluated the race for control of each legislative chamber in August, he reported that the Maine House leaned toward the Democrats, while the Senate leaned Republican.
Ohio: Redistricting’s Impact
Republicans also took control in Ohio in 2010, winning the state House of Representatives and the governorship away from Democrats. Yet Democrats are a lot less optimistic about bouncing back in Ohio than they are elsewhere.
That isn’t because the party is performing poorly in the state overall — many polls show Obama with a narrow edge in Ohio over Mitt Romney. Nor is it because Republican rule has been free of controversy. At the polls in November 2011, Ohio voters decisively overturned a law that would have limited collective bargaining for public employees, undoing a key achievement of Governor John Kasich and the Republican legislature.
Kasich’s approval numbers have bounced back since then. In addition, Republicans prepared early to preserve their majority. “A lot of our candidates have been knocking on doors since October 2011,” says House Majority Floor Leader Matt Huffman. “It doesn’t cost any money, it’s good for you because you get in shape running up and down the stairs and that’s how you win these elections.”
But Ohio’s House Republicans have another reason for optimism. They are running in districts with boundaries that were redrawn by the state’s Republican-dominated Reapportionment Board. Republicans also used the redistricting process — which follows the census every ten years — to try to solidify new majorities in Indiana, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
“We hope to pick up seats, but it’s much more challenging and much more difficult,” says Armond Budish, the Democratic minority leader of the Ohio House. “It doesn’t mean a candidate can’t win in a Republican district, but it sure makes it harder.” Republican Huffman expects his party to expand on its 59-40 edge.
For that reason, Democrats’ best chance of regaining power in the Ohio legislature may be a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would place redistricting in the hands of a citizens commission evenly balanced between Democrats, Republicans and independents. If the amendment passes, legislative candidates would run in a whole new set of districts in 2014.
Washington: Counting Every Seat
Unlike in Ohio, Republicans in Washington State fell short in 2010, but they managed to cut the Democratic edge in the state Senate to 27-22. The Washington Senate is one of several chambers — including the Colorado Senate, Iowa Senate, Nevada Senate, New Mexico House and Oregon Senate — where Republicans made progress toward securing a majority in 2010 and hope to finish the job this year.
The question in these states is whether the 2010 results represented a first step or a high water mark for Republicans. In Washington, there are clues to examine.
Since candidates in Washington run in a single primary regardless of party — with the top two advancing to the general elections — last month’s primaries offered a clear, if imperfect, preview of what may happen in November. For the Senate, the numbers seemed to show Republicans picking up two Democratic-held seats and Democrats picking up one Republican-held seat, a result that would whittle Democrats’ edge, but only to 26-23. Those results suggest the difficulty Republicans will have trying to win chambers they couldn’t win in 2010 in Democratic-leaning states like Washington.
Nonetheless, Mike Hewitt, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, says he expects whichever party controls that chamber next year to do so by a single vote. That would give Republicans real influence. Even with only 22 senators, they forced Democrats to compromise on the budget this year with the help of three crossover Democratic votes. “Even if we don’t get a majority,” Hewitt says, “I think we’ll be very close to having the majority philosophically.”
With the budget debate in mind, Democrats not only want to maintain their majority, but hope to expand it. In Washington State as elsewhere, they are hoping that the 2012 elections will allow them to retake the initiative. To do that, they need every seat they can get. “If we’re at 28 or 29 that gives us a better opportunity to govern,” says David Frockt, who co-chairs the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee in Washington State, “to work with Republicans on a bipartisan basis, but also have a little more control about what our priorities will be.”