I know that it’s easy here at Swing State Project to get seduced by all the glitz and glamour of U.S. House races. (That sounds hilarious when you think about how incredibly nerdy it sounds, but, well, there’s a kernel of truth there.) Bear with me for a minute, though, as we drop down to the real meat and potatoes of American politics: state legislatures. I’ll try to keep everyone updated in future months about developments in some of the biggest contests, but here’s a primer to start with.
Here are some reasons why you should very much care. First, the states are often the crucibles for experimentation with progressive policy. That’s especially been the case over the last few decades of Republican domination at the national level, although hopefully that will change once we actually have a progressive trifecta in Washington.
Consider where the movement toward civil rights and marriage or civil union rights for gays and lesbians has occurred: it’s been purely at the state level. If and when truly universal health care happens, given the difficulty of getting it through Congress, it’s most likely to happen in some of the states (and the some of the boldest moves in that direction have already occurred in the states, such as in Vermont and Oregon… and not coincidentally, back when they had MDs for governors).
Also, the state legislatures are our bench for federal office. The GOP may be the party of wealthy self-funders popping out of nowhere, but the Democrats are largely a meritocratic bunch and many of our best have stints in the state legislature on their resume, where they honed their skills and built their networks. Just as one example, consider what the guy who, four years ago today, was representing the 13th District of the Illinois State Senate is up to now.
Finally, in most states, the state legislatures control the redistricting process, not just for themselves but for U.S. House districts as well. The entire shape and terrain of the nationwide electoral battlefield for the entire 2010s will be determined by who has control of the legislature in key states following the 2010 election. This is partly why we were so hosed during the early 2000s: GOP-held legislatures in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan drew remarkably GOP-favorable maps. And even when the blue wave came in 2006, the pro-GOP gerrymanders probably saved them the loss of even more seats.
Some GOP-held legislatures are ready to flip now; others have the Democrats in a somewhat deeper hole, but a sustained push over two electoral cycles can have the Democrats in control in 2010. Let’s take a look at the key playing fields for this year and the next few years, starting with Republican-held legislatures that are within striking distance. (The rank order is mostly gut-level, although I did use some informal metrics involving the size of the state, how close the gap between the two parties is, and how much is at stake for that state with 2010 redistricting.)
1) New York Senate
30 Democrats, 32 Republicans (62 total)
1 to tie, 2 to flip (Republicans would sort-of break the tie, as Joe Bruno is both Senate Majority Leader and Acting Lt. Governor because of David Paterson having become Governor, although he still gets only one vote)
Two-year terms, no term limits
Constituents per seat: 311,000
I think most prognosticators would agree with me that this is one is currently the big enchilada. The Republican edge in the Senate, resulting from the long-term presence of GOP lifers in seats that Dem-leaning areas (seriously… 7 of the GOP senators have been in place since the 1970s), has allowed Joe Bruno to single-handedly act as a brake on implementing the progressive agenda in New York.
Moreover, the opportunity for a Democratic trifecta in Albany (Dems currently control the Governor’s seat, and the Assembly by a wide margin) in 2010 would mean complete control over the redistricting process, and an opportunity to dislodge any remaining GOP Congressmen in New York. (Although it’s looking likely that there won’t be more than two or three left after the 2008 election!) New York is predicted to lose two house seats after the 2010 census, and the blow can be softened by making sure both are GOP-held seats.
We’ve edged two seats closer to takeover since the 2006 election via two special elections (in SD-7 on Long Island and SD-48 in far north Upstate). All 62 seats are up this year; unlike most other Senates, in New York, Senators serve two-year terms and are up for re-election every cycle. Robert Harding at the Albany Report has begun an ongoing series handicapping the competitive Senate races, and also started an excellent series of diaries profiling each of the Senate districts.
Of Harding’s most competitive seats, 8 of the 10 are currently GOP-held; the top two are SD-15 and S-11, two seats in heavily Democratic Queens held by GOP oldsters (Serphin Maltese and Frank Padavan). While polling of individual districts hasn’t begun, a Quinnipiac poll released yesterday found that, statewide, voters prefer a Democratic State Senate to a Republican one by a margin of 51 to 35.
2) Texas House
71 Democrats, 79 Republicans (150 total)
4 to tie, 5 to flip
Two-year terms, no term limits
Constituents per seat: 157,000
The Texas House has been controlled by Republicans since 2003. As you probably recall, their first order of business was to engage in the mid-decade DeLay-mander that led to the Dems’ electoral wipeout in 2004 (although several victims of that wipeout have managed to claw their way back into the House). Texas is predicted to gain as many as four seats in the U.S. House through 2010 reapportionment, and given the Texas GOP’s skill at creating bizarre tapeworm-shaped districts, it’s possible that, if we don’t have a seat at the redistricting table, all four of those seats could wind up GOP-leaning. (Given how close the House is, that seat is much likelier to come there than via the Governor or the Senate, where we’re in a deeper hole at 11 D/20 R.)
In addition, in terms of implementing policy, the House Speaker (currently Tom Craddick) is basically the most powerful person in Texas politics, much more so than the Governor. Four seats may seem a little steep – and this may wind up being a two-cycle project, although given the stakes, it’s critically important to follow through – but given the rapid demographic changes occurring in Texas (the same ones that are suddenly putting TX-07 and TX-10 within reach) it’s doable.
3) Pennsylvania Senate
21 Democrats, 29 Republicans (50 total)
4 to tie, 5 to flip (Lt. Governor, currently Dem, breaks tie)
Four-year terms, limit of two terms, half elected each election
Constituents per seat: 249,000
The Pennsylvania Senate is definitely a two-cycle project, as only half of the 50 seats are up for election in 2008, and it’ll be hard to turn more than one or two this year. I’m listing this as high as #3 because Pennsylvania is, after New York, the largest blue state where one of the legislative bodies is Republican-controlled. Like New York, this is because of old-school Republicans hanging on in areas that have long since gone Democratic, at least at the presidential level (Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties in particular). A prominent example is Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, who represents part of Delaware County.
In addition, Pennsylvania is projected to lose another seat in the U.S. House in 2010, so control of the redistricting process will be key. (Hellish redistricting in 2000 managed to turn their U.S. House delegation from 11 R-10 D in 2000 to 12 R-7 D in 2002. Of course, spreading the seats as thin as they did wasn’t that wise, as we got the last laugh in 2006, flipping four seats.)
4) Nevada Senate
10 Democrats, 11 Republicans (21 total)
1 to flip
Four-year terms, limit of three terms, half elected each election
Constituents per seat: 119,000 (except for two multi-member seats)
Nevada is a smallish state, but it ranks high on this list because it’s so closely divided (only one seat needs to change hands to flip control to the Democrats). The Democrats already control the state Assembly by a safe 27-15 margin, and given Jim Gibbons’ problems, may well take back the Governor’s seat in 2010, in which case flipping the Senate would give them the trifecta.
Nevada is also important from a redistricting standpoint, as it will be gaining a seat in 2010. We have a good shot to create three Dem-leaning seats in Clark County, each of which contain part Las Vegas and part suburbs, so, again, control of the redistricting process is key.
5) Tennessee Senate
16 Democrats, 16 Republicans, 1 Independent (Speaker is R)
1 to flip
Four-year terms, half elected every election
Constituents per seat: 183,000
Tennessee’s Senate is one of two tied legislative bodies right now (Oklahoma’s Senate is the other one), but the Republicans currently control the Speaker’s seat (Ron Ramsey won the Speaker vote 18-15, including the support of one Dem). This is on the list because a shift of one seat would give the Democrats control (assuming that Rosalind Kurita, the Dem who flipped would vote for a Democratic speaker in the event of a clear Democratic majority). Democrats already control the House and the Governorship.
This is a bit lower on the list because Tennessee is expected to retain nine House seats in 2010. Changes around the margins, however, could either work toward making existing Democratic seats safer, or else trying to make TN-07 competitive.
Others to watch
The Michigan Senate would be near the top of the list, as we’re down 17 D-21 R and only need to pick up two seats to tie it (where the Dem Lt. Gov. would break the tie). Michigan has one of the most pro-GOP gerrymanders in the nation, which will need to be undone in 2010. However, we can’t do anything about it yet because no Senators are up for election in 2008; all 38 stand in 2010.
The Virginia House of Delegates is a ripe target, especially in view of having just taken over the Virginia Senate. We’re down 45 D-53 R-2 I (the Independents both caucus GOP), so a swing of six would give us the trifecta. This election, however, won’t happen until 2009.
As I mentioned, the Oklahoma Senate is also tied, split 24-24. We maintain functional control over the Senate because of the Democratic Lt. Governor, however (although a power-sharing agreement gives the Republicans control during the month of July, believe it or not).
Wisconsin’s Assembly is within reach, with Dems down 47 D-52 R. And both chambers in Arizona are close (13 D-17 R in the Senate, and 27 D-33 R in the House); Arizona is set to gain two seats in 2010, but redistricting control isn’t at issue as the decisions are up to a nonpartisan commission.
Now let’s take a look at legislatures where we’re going to have to play defense. I don’t foresee this being a cause for alarm, given broader Democratic strengths this cycle, but the fact that we currently control 57 legislatures to the GOP’s 39 means that we do need to watch our backs.
1) Pennsylvania House
102 Democrats, 101 Republicans (203 total)
1 to flip
Constituents per seat: 61,000
A strong gust could tip the Pennsylvania House back to Republican control (especially considering that, although the Democrats control the chamber, they elected a Republican as speaker in a compromise). Looking at the sheer numbers of Republicans left in the Dem-leaning Philly burbs, the general trends point in our direction, but at only 61,000 constituents per seat, local-level dynamics can make all the difference.
2) Michigan House
58 Democrats, 52 Republicans (110 total)
3 to tie, 4 to flip
Two-year terms, limit of three terms
Constituents per seat: 92,000
In Michigan, the Dems hold the House and the Governorship, although both somewhat tenuously. Controlling the trifecta in 2010 is extremely important, as the pro-GOP gerrymander in the U.S. House seats needs to be undone (the split went from 9 D-7 R in 2000 to 9 R-6 D in 2002, where it persists today). Michigan is predicted to lose one more seat in 2010.
3) Indiana House
51 Democrats, 49 Republicans (100 total)
1 to tie, 2 to flip
Constituents per seat: 63,000
The Democratic margin is Indiana is very narrow, and the only thing keeping the GOP from controlling the trifecta (the GOP has solid control over the Senate, at 33 R-17 D). Indiana is not predicted to lose a U.S. House seat in 2010, but a GOP gerrymander could make life much more difficult for the three Dem House members representing red districts in Indiana.
4) Oregon House
31 Democrats, 29 Republicans (60 total)
1 to tie, 2 to flip
Constituents per seat: 62,000
Democrats in Oregon finally took back the House in 2006, giving them the trifecta (they have solid control over the Senate, at 19 D-11 R). This is on the list mostly by virtue of how close it is on paper, but the disparity wasn’t much of an impediment on Speaker Jeff Merkley’s ability to push through progressive legislation. With strong Obama coattails and the Republicans defending several suburban open seats, look for the Democrats to gain a few seats (as Skywaker9 at Daily Kos has thoroughly detailed). However, Oregon is set to gain a House seat in 2010, with the possibility of a 5-1 delegation if the Dems divvy up Portland correctly, so holding the trifecta through 2010 is important.
5) Illinois House
67 Democrats, 51 Republicans (118 total)
8 to tie, 9 to flip
Constituents per seat: 109,000
Illinois doesn’t actually seem in that much danger this year, with a decent-sized cushion and major Obama coattails. The main reason this is on the list as opposed to a chamber with smaller margins is that Illinois is set to lose a U.S. House seat in 2010, and although we currently control the trifecta, we don’t want the GOP anywhere near the redistricting table.
A few other bodies are worth mentioning: the Virginia Senate (21 D-19 R), Louisiana House (53 D-49 R-1 I-2 V), and Mississippi Senate (27 D-25 R) are all very close, but these are all off-year elections and won’t be an issue until 2009.
(You might be wondering what our safest chamber is. I’d say it’s the Hawaii Senate, which we control 22 D-3 R.)
Finally, I wanted to turn my attention to several more pickup possibilities, which I’m calling the “moneyball” states. These tend to be the smallest states, where redistricting isn’t an issue because each one only gets one U.S. House seat, so they aren’t high priorities for us. On the other hand, these are the chambers that can be flipped for the smallest possible investment. I calculated this simply by multiplying the number of seats needed to flip by the number of constituents per seat (and thus the presumed expense of flipping a seat). Two of these cases (Delaware and Montana) would actually give the Dems the trifecta in those states.
1) Montana House
49 Democrats, 50 Republicans, 1 Constitution Party (100 total)
1 to tie, 2 to flip
Constituents per seat: 9,000
Moneyball number: 18,000
2) Delaware House
19 Democrats, 22 Republicans (41 total)
2 to flip
Constituents per seat: 21,000
Moneyball number: 42,000
3) North Dakota Senate
21 Democrats, 26 Republicans (47 total)
3 to flip
Constituents per seat: 14,000
Moneyball number: 42,000
4) South Dakota Senate
15 Democrats, 20 Republicans (35 total)
3 to flip
Constituents per seat: 22,000
Moneyball number: 66,000
5) Alaska House
17 Democrats, 23 Republicans (40 total)
3 to tie, 4 to flip
Constituents per seat: 17,000
Moneyball number: 68,000
There’s a real shortage of information out there at the national level about individual state legislature races, so if anyone of you out there know of any blogs or individual diarists that excel at handicapping state legislature races, please let us know in the comments and we’ll be sure and keep up with them as we approach November.