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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

State Elections of 2014: The Donkey’s Uphill Climb

As we soberly look ahead at 2014, it’s important to remember state elections in addition to competitive congressional races. Alas, the landscape for Democrats is not as good as one might imagine given the radicalism and misgovernment exhibited by the state-level Republicans who benefited from the landslide of 2010. I summed up the lay of the land in a column for TPMCafe today, from which I’ve drawn this excerpt:

In theory, Republicans should be exposed to some serious losses thanks to their 2010 landslide. They will defend 22 of the 36 governorships up this November. Nine are in states carried twice by Barack Obama. Republicans also control 27 legislatures (91 percent of state lower-chamber seats are up this year, along with 55 percent of state senate seats) and partially control five more; five states carried twice by Obama have Republican-controlled legislatures, and three more have split legislatures.
Aside from possible “over-exposure” in places that lean blue, Republican state-level success in 2010 means they could suffer from identification with a wildly unpopular status quo. While approval rating polling of governors has been erratic of late, several notable Republicans (e.g. LePage of Maine, Scott of Florida, Kasich of Ohio, Corbett of PA) have been struggling for many months.
But when you consult the professionals on how gubernatorial races look, there doesn’t appear to be any Democratic counter-landslide in the offing for 2014. The Cook Political Report does not presently show Democrats leading in any race involving a Republican-controlled governorship. Cook does have four Republican incumbents in toss-up races (LePage, Scott, Corbett and Snyder of MI), but that’s balanced in part by two Democratic governorships (Pat Quinn’s Illinois, and Arkansas, where Mike Beebe is retiring) in toss-up status. Overall, Cook shows nine gubernatorial races as competitive (toss-ups plus leaners), and five are Republican, four Democratic. Another rating site, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, presently shows Pennsylvania and Maine favored to flip from Republican to Democratic, but also shows three current Democratic states (Connecticut as well as Arkansas and Illinois) as toss-ups.

Why the lack of opportunities? There are three basic reasons:

The first is the recent alignment of the two parties with elements of the electorate that do (older, whiter voters) and don’t (young people and minorities) tend to vote disproportionately in midterm elections. The “fall-off” in voting for midterms and its variable level in different parts of the electorate is an ancient phenomenon; what’s new is how it affects the major parties, particularly given Democratic dependence on young and minority voters. While a lot of political observers have noted this new situation (and a few, like yours truly, have suggested it will make the elimination of partisan gridlock very difficult), few if any have concluded the “two electorates” with their different leanings are likely to provide Republicans with a significant advantage in gubernatorial elections since four-fifths of them occur in non-presidential years. This advantage may really come in handy for GOPers in 2014.
A parallel factor of equal importance is the sharp decline in ticket-splitting that has occurred since the late 1980s (roughly the time when the ideological sorting-out of the two parties reached its culmination, greatly reducing the number of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats who were natural ticket-splitters). In a period of strong national partisan polarization, the likelihood of one trend in congressional elections and a contrary trend in state elections is significantly lower. And that’s why for all the persistent talk of “anti-incumbency elections” or “waves,” it’s actually rare to see elections “turn out the bums” in both parties at different levels of government.
Finally, at the state legislative level, it’s important to remember that the same gerrymandering efforts that solidified Republican control of the U.S. House benefitted the GOP Class of 2010 among state legislators as well.

The good news for Democrats is that Republicans seem to be overconfident about 2014, and just as importantly, determined to continue pushing their luck with radical policies that could help Democrats make major steps in overcoming the midterm turnout “fall-off” problem. I vividly recall one midterm (in 1998) when offensive Republican behavior towards minorities and national revulsion against the effort to impeach Bill Clinton produced a major turnout surge among African-Americans that lifted Democrats to upset gubernatorial victories in three Deep South states (Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina). That sort of scenario is by no means impossible this year in the wide swath of Republican-governed states, but it will take a supreme Democratic effort to make it happen.

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