Stateline Story

Election '08 – Could Dems Sweep?

  • November 03, 2008
  • By Pamela Prah

The reeling economy and Barack Obama's lead in the polls for the presidency could be setting the stage for Democrats to take control at both the national and state levels for the first time in 16 years.

Not since President Clinton's first two years in office has the Democratic Party controlled the White House, Congress and a majority of governor's seats and state legislative chambers, according to Tim Storey, elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Democrats head into Election Day already sporting a 28-22 advantage over Republicans in governorships and controlling 57 of the 98 legislative chambers in 49 states. (Nebraska's unicameral legislature isn't counted because it's nonpartisan.) With the Republican Party feeling the drag of an unpopular president and a Wall Street crisis - and this an off-peak year with fewer state races on the ballot - the best the GOP can hope for at the state level is to chip away at some of state Democrats' watershed gains from 2006.

Fewer offices are at stake this year than will be in 2010, when 36 governors face re-election. On Nov. 4, 11 governor's races are on the ballot but only three outcomes are seriously considered to be in doubt.

2008 state elections

In Washington state, polls indicate Republican challenger Dino Rossi is within striking distance of toppling incumbent Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire in a replay of 2004 when Gregoire won by just 133 votes after three recounts and a lawsuit. In North Carolina, where a Democrat has won the governor's race in all but three elections in the last 100 years, the Republican candidate, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, is running neck and neck with Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) in the contest to replace term-limited Democrat Gov. Mike Easley.

The third governor's race being closely watched is that of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R). Daniels, a former budget director for President Bush, is the "canary in the coal mine" that could signal how Republicans could fare across the country and in the presidential race, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report. Daniels, who during his first term took heat for leasing the Indiana toll road and switching the state to daylight-saving time, has been leading in most polls over Democrat Jill Long Thompson, a former U.S. House member. "If Daniels should lose this race, I take that as a very, very bad sign for the Republicans," Duffy said.

Texas, Arizona chambers are flags for GOP demise

Similarly, the legislative races to watch as a litmus test of how the parties are doing nationally are the Republican-led Nevada and North Dakota senates and the lower chambers in Texas or Arizona, the home state of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, which the GOP has controlled for the last four decades, according to Storey. If Democrats pick up those seats, "it will indicate a massive shift," he said.

The presidential race, with the prospect of the first black president or first female vice president, overshadows this year's races for state-level office. But both parties already are laying the groundwork to solidify their hold on legislatures with an eye toward all-important redistricting after the 2010 census.

More than 600 state senators who are elected Nov. 4 will be involved in redistricting, said NCSL's Storey. The next round of redistricting could alter the partisan balance in Congress, putting 15 to 25 seats in play for one party or the other. In most states, a congressional map needs approval from both legislative chambers and the governor, although six states empower a bipartisan commission to do the job.

Besides the 11 governors, voters this year will elect 5,824 legislators in 44 states (79 percent of the total seats in legislatures), as well as nine lieutenant governors and seven secretaries of state, posts that often serve as launching pads for the governorship.

In addition, voters in 36 states will decide 153 statewide ballot measures. One of the most important is California's vote on whether to stop gay weddings, thousands of which already have taken place since a state high court ruling in May. Florida and Arizona also are voting on gay marriage bans. Washington state will vote on assisted suicide, and Colorado voters will weigh whether to restrict affirmative action and abortion.

States themselves will be in the spotlight to see whether election officials can handle the surge of voters expected to cast ballots and any surprises caused by different voting machines, which 40 percent of voters will use on Tuesday. Ohio, which provided the decisive electoral votes in George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, has 8.1 million registered voters, the highest in state history. Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia all have seen spikes in the number of people registered to vote, according to a recent tally by the National Association of Secretaries of State .

Presidential coattails tested

The effect of the presidential ticket could be felt in some state-level races. This year has seen a surge in registrations of new voters, which some experts expect will benefit Democrats more than Republicans. Duffy of The Cook Political Report, said the Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Washington state and North Carolina "can thank Obama" if they win, because he has campaigned heavily in both states.

Presidential coattails aren't expected to matter in filling the open seat in Missouri of retiring Gov. Matt Blunt (R). Democrat Jay Nixon is "expected to win handily," said David J. Webber, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. But if Democrats pick up the Missouri House, it could be because of the many visits to the state from Obama and his running mate, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Webber said.

Historically, the record is mixed on whether presidential coattails translate into big gains in statehouses. Since 1940, the party winning the White House has added seats in state legislatures in 11 of 17 elections, said NCSL's Storey.

Today, Democrats hold a 27-20 lead in control of state senates and a 30-19 lead in the lower chambers. Two state senates are tied.

Both parties have opportunities to flip 25 of the 84 legislative chambers with members facing election this year, according to Louis Jacobson, editor of CongressNow and a Stateline.org columnist . Even if the presidential race goes their way, Democrats probably are looking at modest legislative gains, most likely between one to four chambers, Jacobson said in a recent Stateline.org column. Likely Democratic gains could be canceled out by GOP takeovers of the Montana Senate and the tied senates in Oklahoma and Tennessee, he said.

One of the biggest potential prizes for Democrats is the New York Senate, which the GOP has held for 40 years. A win there would give the Democrats complete control of state government for the first time since the Great Depression. Other Democratic targets are the Delaware and Ohio houses and both chambers in Wisconsin.

Democrats also want to hold onto their dramatic 2006 win in New Hampshire, where for the first time since after the Civil War, they captured the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature. Democratic Gov. John Lynch is far ahead in the polls against his Republican opponent, Joe Kenney, who has served in the statehouse for 14 years.

Republicans hope to win back not just New Hampshire but also the lower chambers in Indiana, Iowa and Pennsylvania, all of which the GOP lost in 2006.

In the remaining open seat for governor, Delaware Treasurer Jack Markell (D) has a wide lead over his challengers, Superior Court Judge Bill Lee (R) and independent Mike Protack, to fill the seat of Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who is term-limited. Democrats had been favored to retain the seat even before Delaware's Biden was named as Obama's pick for vice president.

In the "blue" state of Vermont, Republican Gov. Jim Douglas is favored to win over Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington and Anthony Pollina, a third-party candidate who has won the endorsement of key labor groups.

Besides Lynch of New Hampshire, the remaining incumbent governors who are leading by double digits and are expected to win re-election are: Democrats Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Republicans Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and John Hoeven of North Dakota.

Congressional races could send a few former governors and state political leaders to the nation's capitol. Former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) is in a tight contest with U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R), while former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) hopes to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. John Sununu (R). In North Carolina, Democratic state Sen. Kay Hagan is in a close race with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), as is Oregon State House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D), who is trying to oust incumbent U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R).

At least one former governor is sure to join the U.S. Senate, replacing Virginia's retiring U.S. Sen. John Warner (R). Virginia voters will choose between two former state chief executives: Democrat Mark Warner (no relation to the retiring Warner), who is leading in the polls, or his predecessor, Republican Jim Gilmore.