With the nation swept up in a riveting presidential election, state legislative races might rank far down the political totem pole this fall. But with almost two dozen chambers at risk of a takeover by their minority parties - roughly one of every four that have elections - state legislative contests will carry weight this year, both for the obvious policy implications as well as for their impact on the 2010 round of congressional redistricting.
For the first - but not for the last - time this election cycle, "Out There" has rated the political hold on each of the 84 partisan legislative chambers in 43 states that have members up for re-election in November. This year, the Democratic party is well-positioned to hold its majority of chambers - but greatly expanding control may not be in the cards.
The predictions of what might happen after the ballots are counted are based on interviews with about 45 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.
What's at stake, in part, is thateight states, including major ones such as Indiana, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania,Tennessee and Wisconsin,have divided control of their legislatures, at least one chamber that could flip party-control in 2008 and a system that allows lawmakers to redraw congressional districts in conjunction with their governors after 2010. In each case, seizing control of a chamber could significantly shift the dynamics of redistricting. And in another big state, Texas, Democrats are looking to secure a place at the redistricting table by winning the state House.
The big picture is that both parties face a parallel landscape. Ten Democratic-controlled chambers - five Senates and five Houses - are in play, which means a chamber ranked as Toss-Up, Lean Republican or Lean Democratic. Republicans control 11 chambers in play - five Senates and six Houses. Two politically tied chambers are also in play, while 14 are not up for election this year.
This means that, structurally, the two parties are equally well-positioned to register gains or suffer losses. And at least at this early date, the key external factors shed little light on which party might ultimately do better in November.
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 the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). This would be bad news for the GOP, which faces a host of difficulties, from President Bush's low approval ratings to the war in Iraq and the faltering economy.
But Democrats have some worries as well. For one thing, they could be held back by their past successes - the fact that they have netted legislative gains for two consecutive major cycles, specifically a six-chamber gain in 2004 and an eight-chamber gain in 2006. Today, there are 30 Democratic-controlled state Houses compared to 19 for the Republicans, and 27 Democratic state Senates compared to 20 held by Republicans and two that are tied. (Nebraska's legislature is unicameral and non-partisan.)
It's unclear how much higher the Democrats can go.
"The Democrats had such huge gains in 2006 that a lot of the low-hanging fruit is gone," said Tim Storey, an elections specialist at NCSL. "The Democrats are playing defense as much as the Republicans are."
Moreover, Republicans and Democrats alike say that the complicated race for the Democratic presidential nomination remains a big question mark for how voting will play out in the legislatures. How the nominee is decided could determine whether key elements of the Democratic coalition, such as African-Americans, Hispanics and blue-collar whites, stick with the Democrats further down the ballot, or whether they don't vote at all or defect to the Republicans.
As for the 23 chambers being contested in November that are considered in play, each party controls four Toss-Up chambers, most of them pivoting on the difference of a seat or two. The Democrats' Toss-Up chambers are the Senate in Maine and New Hampshire and the House in Indiana and Pennsylvania. The Republican-controlled Toss-Ups are the Senate in Alaska and New York and the House in Delaware and Montana. One tied chamber, the Tennessee Senate, is a Toss-Up as well.
With one exception - the Montana Senate - the chambers that are leaning Democratic or Republican begin with an advantage to the incumbent majority. The chambers leaning Democratic are the Colorado House and Senate, the Wisconsin Senate and the House in Tennessee and Michigan. Those leaning Republican are the Arizona House and Senate, the Senate in Nevada and North Dakota , the House in Ohio and Texas and the Wisconsin Assembly. One tied chamber leans Republican: the Oklahoma Senate.
The national marquee contest among legislatures is almost certainly the battle for the New York Senate, both because of the size of the state's media market and because a switch could give the Democrats a free hand in the 2010 round of congressional redistricting.
The chamber is currently held by the GOP, 32-30. With the recent elevation of Lt. Gov. David Paterson (D), who had been able to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, the Democrats now have to net two seats to take over - a task seen as within their reach. While the scandal-linked resignation of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) was hardly good news for Empire State Democrats, the Republicans' decades-long hold on the chamber is widely believed to be weakening because of broader demographic and political trends. In fact, Paterson's takeover from Spitzer, whose popularity was sagging before the scandal broke, could even aid the Democrats.
Another potential big-state prize for Democrats is the Texas House, where the Republicans - once seemingly invincible - find themselves ahead only 79-71 after a net nine-seat gain by the Democrats since 2004. The GOP has been weakened internally by fights revolving around the leadership of hard-line Speaker Tom Craddick.
One of the biggest Republican targets will be Michigan's Democratic-controlled House. The battered economy - both Michigan's and the country's - threatens to leave voters in a sour mood, and the state House is the only big statewide contest on the ballot this year. The GOP has seized on tax-hike votes, but a seat-by-seat analysis suggests that the Democrats may be able to hold on to their margin.
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Republicans will also look to Pennsylvania, where the Democrats hold a slender one-seat edge. Democrats are on the hot seat because of an investigation into bonuses paid to legislative staffers who did political work. Even so, the seat-by-seat outlook and the national political environment favor the Democrats.
The GOP will also be trying to flip a number of Democratic-held chambers in red states. These include both chambers in Tennessee - the tied Senate and the Democratic-controlled House - as well as the tied Oklahoma Senate and the Indiana House, where a gain of just two seats would enable Republicans to take over. The Democrats will try to flip narrowly divided GOP chambers in blue states, such as the Delaware House, and swing states, such as the Nevada Senate and the Ohio House.
Perhaps the most unexpected chambers in play for the fall are two held by the GOP in staunchly Republican states: the Alaska Senate and the North Dakota Senate.
In Alaska, a corruption scandal has soured voters on the reigning generation of Republican politicians. In the Senate, the GOP nominally holds an 11-9 lead, but the Democrats and some Republicans already hold functional control of the chamber. "Out There" rates it as a Toss-Up.
In North Dakota, the Democrats hope to follow up on their six-seat Senate gain in 2006 with another three seats in 2008, which would be enough to take control of the chamber. Democrats are hopeful, not only because of the national mood, but also because of fallout from a workers compensation ballot measure that they believe helps their cause. "Out There" currently rates the chamber as leaning Republican.
As with the presidential race, the Mountain West should be a key battleground this fall. Montana's two chambers, both narrowly divided for several cycles running, will continue to be hotly contested. Elsewhere, Democrats will seek to maintain control of both chambers in Colorado, and will try to make headway in Arizona. Colorado seems a likelier bet for now, since Democrats will be facing home-stater U.S. Sen. John McCain on the top of the Arizona GOP ticket.
Nationally, it is possible that the Democrats could make significant gains once again, but history is against them. Some of the biggest landslides in voting for the legislatures have come during midterm elections - 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994 and 2006 among them - and not presidential years. This pattern isn't set in stone, but early analysis by "Out There" sees only modest legislative gains this cycle - maybe even a wash - meaning that Democratic strength in the legislatures looks likely to last for at least another cycle.
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.