CHICAGO — An extraordinary number of state legislators may lose their seats this year, but neither Republicans nor Democrats are likely to make big gains in the number of state legislative chambers each party controls.
That was the outlook that lawmakers who gathered at the annual National Conference of State Legislatures summit in Chicago heard Thursday (August 9) from Tim Storey, an NCSL expert in legislative elections.
If current trends continue, more than half of the nation's state legislators could be in their first or second term when they take office next year, Storey says. At the same time, 31 of the country's 50 governors took office since 2010, which means that state governments increasingly will be led by people with little government experience.
This fall, only 11 states are electing governors, while 44 are choosing state lawmakers. In fact, Storey says, 81 percent of all state legislative districts are on the ballot this year. “The battle for the states,” Storey says, “is in the legislatures.”
The once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative districts explains some of this year's volatility, but more incumbents are losing than can be explained by redistricting alone, he says. So far this year, 135 lawmakers lost their seats in primaries, with 14 states left to go. By comparison, only 96 incumbents fell before the general election two years ago.
Primary challenges ousted far more Republicans than Democrats. The losing lawmakers include 91 Republicans and 44 Democrats, even though Republicans hold only a small majority of legislative seats nationwide.
The trend hit close to home for delegates gathered in Chicago, because NCSL's president, Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, lost a Republican primary while overseeing the meeting. Morris was one of eight moderates in the Kansas Senate tossed from office Tuesday, as Governor Sam Brownback threw his weight behind more conservative Republicans who would support more of his agenda.
In Kansas, the incumbent senators outspent their foes 3-1, but outside groups poured in money on behalf of the challengers. The barrage of advertising supporting the conservative candidates tied moderates, who bottled up many of Brownback's proposals, to President Obama's health care law.
“They said we all supported Obamacare, and that's not true,” Morris told The Huffington Post. “It's effective. The campaigns we did were positive and informational. The campaigns against us were very nasty. Evidently, negative campaigning must work.”
New faces do not necessarily mean that a drastically different balance of power between Democrats and Republicans will emerge after November, says NCSL's Storey. In recent election cycles, momentum built early for one party or the other, and that momentum led to big gains by Democrats in 2008 and Republicans in 2010. This year, Storey says, the signs have been much more ambiguous.
Republicans control their highest share of legislative seats — 55 percent — since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, and they control both chambers in 26 states. But that means they have little ground left to gain and vulnerable territory to defend.
Democrats must fight to preserve narrow majorities in one or both chambers of Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington and Wisconsin. But Republicans face tough competition to keep chambers in Colorado, Minnesota, New York and Maine. The Oregon House and Alaska Senate are currently evenly divided.
In a typical year, Storey says, 13 state legislative chambers switch party control. Two years ago, 24 chambers flipped. All but two of them went to the Republicans; the other two were tied.