by Michael Davies
While the state legislative elections are not covered to the extent that control of the U.S. House or Senate is, control of these 98 state chambers has a long-term impact on national Democratic success. Here’s why smart strategists are looking to the state elections:
A good year materializes
The thing most people don’t know–and that we never mind telling them–is that state legislative Democrats scored major wins in the 2004 elections. State legislative Democrats and the DLCC bucked national trends and gained 6 chambers on net.
We began the 2006 cycle on the defensive, having to protect narrow majorities in a number of chambers. Fully twenty of the thirty-six states in which the legislature controls redistricting were within four seats of changing hands. We knew our challenge was figuring out a way to defend our narrow majorities, many of them new and many in “red” states like Colorado and North Carolina, while still having enough resources to play offense elsewhere.
But as the 2006 cycle unfolded, we began to see several signs this would be a good year for Democrats. We could see the Democratic base was more engaged and organized than it had been in years. In candidate recruitment, Democrats were out-filing Republicans, both in terms of quantity and quality. Indeed, of the 35% of legislative incumbents who were unopposed in 2006, 60% were Democrats while only 40% were Republicans. We could also see proof of the splintering Republican base–popular moderate Republican incumbents in swing districts were losing their primaries to hard-right candidates.
A localizing strategy
For all the talk about the lack of a Democratic “brand,” state legislative Democrats have been winning elections by localizing them. The DLCC works to strengthen local operations. We give our caucuses tools, best practices, expert advice, and resources, but a large part of our success rests on recruiting candidates who are grounded in their communities and encouraging them to talk about issues and common-sense solutions that resonate in their communities. By empowering state caucuses we are implementing a national strategy to localize state legislative races.
Our strategy stands in stark contrast to the Republican strategy of nationalizing state legislative elections. Republicans attempt to nationalize these races primarily by resorting to divisive social issues. Whether or not these issues were even dealt with in a particular legislative session or whether the particular Democratic candidate is even assailable on the particular issue is of little consequence: Republicans seek to define these elections largely on a nationalized values-and-taxes message. In some cycles, this Republican strategy has been successful at the state legislative level, most notably in 1994 and 2002.
In 2006 our localized strategy met their nationalized strategy and the combined results were stunning. This was clearly not the year for the Republicans’ “one-trick” nationalized strategy. After an almost endless string of scandals and missteps, the national Republican message had little resonance in legislative elections. While this surely hurt the Republicans, the true extent of the legislative Democrats’ victories was just as much a result of our localized strategy which propelled us to victory.
In 2006, Democrats made huge gains at the state legislative level, gaining 10 new Democratic majorities:
- Indiana House
- Iowa House
- Iowa Senate (from a tie)
- Minnesota House
- Michigan House
- New Hampshire House
- New Hampshire Senate
- Oregon House
- Pennsylvania House
- Wisconsin Senate
Republicans, in contrast, shifted just two chambers: the Oklahoma Senate from a Democratic majority to a Democratic-controlled tie, and the Montana House from a tie to a narrow Republican majority. (Two chambers have switched control since the election due to party-switchers: the Tennessee Senate from Republican control to a tie and the Mississippi Senate to a Republican majority.) Democrats now control 55 chambers to the Republicans’ 41, with two chambers tied. This is up from the pre-election spread of 47-49-2.
Democrats gained nearly 350 seats in the 2006 elections, moving the national advantage to 3,984 Democrats to 3,326 Republicans. This is up from a statistically negligible 21-seat advantage pre-election.
We made gains in every region of the country:
CHAMBER AND SEAT SWITCHES IN THE 2006 ELECTIONS**
Some other highlights:
- Democrats picked up seats in almost all of the chambers we won in 2004 including: 2 seats in the Colorado Senate, 4 seats in the Colorado House, 5 seats in the Iowa Senate, 5 seats in the North Carolina House, 10 seats in the Vermont House, and 6 seats in the Washington Senate.
- Democrats also kept majorities in other targeted chambers, including the Kentucky House, Maine House and Senate, Minnesota Senate, Montana Senate, Tennessee House, and Washington House.
- We had a blowout in the New Hampshire House, picking up nearly 90 seats.
- We moved the Minnesota House from 52 Democratic seats after 2002, to 85 Democratic seats, a 33 seat gain.
- In chambers where we’re in the minority, we’ve narrowed the gap,, including the Alaska House and Senate; Florida House; Pennsylvania House; North Dakota House and Senate; Ohio House; Tennessee Senate; and Wisconsin House.
Federal sweep does not tell the whole story
Of the more than six thousand legislative elections in 2006, the DLCC tracked 438 races particularly closely. These were the most-strongly targeted state legislative races in the most-strongly targeted states. The chart below details the Democratic wins in these 438 races across different categories of seats, including Democratic incumbents, Democratic open seats, Republican open seats, and Republican incumbent seats.
The win rate in these seats is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that the win rate was only one percentage point lower in areas not targeted by the DCCC or the DSCC. In fact, 270 of the 438 seats detailed above had no crossover with Democratic-targeted Federal campaigns, while just 168 did. State legislative Democrats won 67% of the seats without Federal crossover and 68% of seats with crossover. This rate is even more striking as the areas not targeted by the Congressional committees tend to be in states and districts more hostile to Democrats.
Implications for long-term Democratic success
There are five reasons why winning at the state legislative level is more important than ever in its long-term impact:
First, when we win a state legislative chamber, the conversation in the state changes overnight. Before Democrats took over the Colorado House and Senate, the conversation playing out in the papers and on the news was between the Right and the Far Right. When we won both chambers, suddenly we were discussing balancing the budget and funding education. By dealing with the bread-and-butter issues that matter most, state legislative Democrats are showing that state government can work, and are undercutting the Republicans’ tired talking points about the lack of a Democratic agenda.
Second, we’re preparing Democrats for redistricting, both Congressional and legislative. Winning at the state legislative level is the only way to make sure Democrats will have a seat at the table when district lines are cut and to ensure competitive districts.
We made some gains this cycle which will impact redistricting for years to come, including our new majorities in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. We also won the Indiana House, preventing a potential Republican mid-decade redistricting that could have made the three newly-Democratic U.S. House seats unwinnable for Democrats.
Third, we’re showing that Democrats can win–anywhere. We’re continuing to make gains at the local level in traditionally “red” and “purple” states, adding this cycle’s gains in Indiana and New Hampshire to last cycle’s wins in North Carolina, Montana, and Colorado. We’ve made gains in every region of the country–in “red” states and “blue” states and in urban, suburban, and exurban districts. We’re showing that when Democrats roll up our sleeves and work to solve problems, people will respond, no matter where they live.
Fourth, we’re standing up for Democratic values at home. State legislatures make more policy decisions that affect citizens’ daily lives than Congress, such as ensuring access to a quality education and healthcare. For every one law that Congress passes, state legislatures pass seventy-five. The role of legislatures has been more important since the Republican Congress slashed federal funding and pushed more of the fiscal burden to the states.
And lastly, as much as the state legislatures are the policy major leagues, we are the “farm team” for statewide and Federal races. About half of today’s governors and Members of Congress started at the state legislative level. Some of this cycle’s key wins were won by former state legislators:
- Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe
- New York Lieutenant Governor David Paterson
- Montana U.S. Senator Jon Tester
- Maryland U.S. Senator Ben Cardin
- Colorado’s 7th District Representative Ed Perlmutter
- Indiana’s 9th District Representative Baron Hill
- Ohio’s 6th District Representative Charlie Wilson
- Connecticut’s 2nd District Representative Joe Courtney
The bottom line is that Democrats must win at the local level to build towards long-term success.
2007 and 2008
In 2007, we have elections in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. In this next cycle, we have twenty-three chambers in twenty states within five seats of changing hands.
We’ll work with our caucuses, legislative leaders, and strategic partners to continue our record of success in 2008 and prepare for 2010, the last election before redistricting. We are proud to be partners with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC) in a new redistricting nerve center, Foundation for the Future.
We picked up all four chambers in two early presidential states, Iowa and New Hampshire. We’re looking forward to seeing how this will shape the presidential debates. Instead of debating Republicans’ favorite topics, we could be asking presidential candidates about building infrastructure for sustainable energy, improving education by attracting and keeping the best teachers, and supporting rural America.
And there will be at least one former state legislator in the running–Barack Obama started as a state legislator.
Our Party will announce our nominee for the presidency in Denver, Colorado which was chosen largely because of the gains Democrats have made in the Mountain West, including at the local level.
While many Democrats will be focused on winning back the White House, our challenge at the DLCC in 2008 will be making sure that Democrats are walking and chewing gum at the same time–working to build the foundation for long-term success. And long-term success starts at the state legislative level.
Michael Davies has served as the Executive Director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) since December 2002. The DLCC is the one national Democratic committee charged with electing Democratic majorities in state legislatures and with raising the quality of Democratic legislative campaigns nationwide.