Legislative Races Tilting Dems' Way in '08
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
The nation's worsening economic picture and Democrat Barack Obama's widening lead in the presidential race appear to be boosting the prospects for Democrats to expand their lead in the state legislatures.
Democrats today hold a 27-20 lead in control of state Senates and a 30-19 lead in state Houses. Two state Senates are tied.
With 20 days until Election Day, "Out There" rates 25 chambers as in play - about 30 percent of the 84 legislative bodies electing members this fall in 43 states. Of those, 11 chambers are rated Toss-Ups, seven with Republican and four with Democratic majorities. (Nebraska also is holding legislative elections, but its unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.)
Using a middle-of-the road scenario, if the parties were to split the Toss-Up chambers on Nov. 4 and hold onto those "leaning" their way, the Democrats stand to net a gain of perhaps one from among the 25 chambers. Even that would not be an insignificant achievement, considering how hard it is to follow up on their big gains in 2004 and 2006 when they netted six and then eight legislative chambers. Plus, the single biggest prize of the year could be the New York Senate, growingly within reach for Democrats.
If there is a Democratic wave on Election Day, the party could be looking at a net gain of four chambers, perhaps even more. Still, a massive shift may not be in the cards, given how much low-hanging fruit the Democrats grabbed in 2006.
Since "Out There" last handicapped legislatures in the 50 states on March 20 , the ratings for 13 chambers have shifted, 10 moving in the Democrats' direction and only three moving toward the Republicans. The trend is a clear sign of the darkened outlook for Republicans running for office at any level this year, perhaps even for presidential candidate John McCain.
"The hill is definitely getting steeper for McCain and the GOP, and that's trickling down to the legislative level," said Tim Storey, an elections specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I thought (Republican vice-presidential nominee) Sarah Palin might be the X factor for the Republicans, but I don't see a big impact on the legislative races."
Historically, legislative pickups tend to coincide with what's happening at the top of the ticket: In 11 of the past 17 presidential elections, the winning party also gained legislative seats, according to NCSL.
Predictions of which party will win legislative control in 2008 are based on interviews with several dozen national and state-based experts. Each chamber was determined to be Safe Democratic, Likely Democratic, Lean Democratic, Toss-Up, Lean Republican, Likely Republican or Safe Republican.
The chambers that moved toward the Democrats in recent months are a mixed bunch. The Republican-held New York Senate and Delaware House had been rated as Toss-Ups seven months ago but now look more likely to shift to Democratic control amid a general cratering of support for Republican candidates in the northeastern U.S.
Out west, Obama's unexpected strength has helped push the Arizona House, the Nevada Senate and the North Dakota Senate to Toss-Up from Lean Republican, while the South Dakota Senate has shifted to Lean Republican from Likely Republican.
In the Midwest, the Democrats are better-positioned to score gains in two hotly contested presidential battleground states. The Ohio House and the Wisconsin Assembly both have shifted to Toss-Up from Lean Republican. In each of these cases, the GOP is at risk of losing control of a chamber. By contrast, only three chambers have moved in the Republicans' direction in recent months.
They are the New Hampshire House, where the need to re-elect a massive number of first-term legislators is posing a challenge to leaders of the Democratic majority; the North Carolina Senate, where surprise gubernatorial frontrunner Pat McCrory (R) may be able to carry a few Senate hopefuls on his coattails; and the tied Tennessee Senate, where Republicans are forecasting gains in rural areas in a state where Obama is not expected to have much impact down the ballot.
Probably the most unusual chamber this cycle is Alaska. Against the backdrop of the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and the energizing, but polarizing, vice-presidential bid by Gov. Sarah Palin (R), the narrowly divided state Senate will be up for grabs. But the factor to watch is how the parties caucus after the election: The chamber is currently led by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, with another faction of Republicans in the minority. Another coalition deal looks quite possible for 2009.
Here and there, the GOP has a few bright spots. In four Democratic-held chambers - the Maine Senate, the New Hampshire Senate, the Indiana House and the Pennsylvania House - the Republicans would need to net only a couple seats to take control, and each of those states is a presidential battleground in which the GOP is allocating major get-out-the-vote resources.
Meanwhile, the GOP is favored to take control of the nation's two tied chambers, the Tennessee Senate and the Oklahoma Senate, as well as the Democratic-held Montana Senate. And a number of legislative chambers appear to be in firm GOP control despite those states being presidential battlegrounds. These include both chambers in Florida, Georgia and Missouri, plus one chamber each in Indiana and Pennsylvania.
However, the rest of the Democratic-held chambers that are rated as in play - the Senates in Colorado, North Carolina and Wisconsin, and the lower chambers in Michigan, New Hampshire and Tennessee look like longer shots for the GOP. McCain already has pulled out of Michigan, for instance.
If the GOP does lose a number of chambers in 2008, Republicans can take a small bit of solace that 2010 will present them with a wide range of opportunities for rebounding. And if they do, it couldn't come at a better time: That will be the last election before congressional and legislative lines are redrawn following the 2010 census.
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.