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Don’t Overlook The States

I’m not even going to pretend to have a handle on what’s going on in every state legislature as November approaches. But I have done some reading and poking around, and 2010 is apparently shaping up to be quite a battle for control of the state legislative chambers. And, of course, this cycle matters more than others each decade because in most states the legislature plays a role, if not the primary role, in drawing the districts both for their own seats as well as the US House seats in the 43 states with two or more representatives.

Beyond redistricting, there are other reasons to keep tabs on state legislative elections. The results offer a bigger sample size of competitive races and chambers than just the Congress. I mean, 2010 is considered a loose, wide open year for congressional elections–and yet that still only means about 60 or 70 House seats in play and 7 or 8 in the Senate. Also, state legislative races are the electoral version of offshore warning buoys: They tell us the true size of a national wave and maybe even provide early warning of its arrival.

Consider 2004, which beyond George W. Bush’s re-election was not actually that great of a cycle for Republicans. One of the factoids I stressed in Whistling Past Dixie, and presentations about it, was that Republicans had probably failed to cause a full-scale and enduring realignment that year, and not only because the GOP’s net congressional gains that year could be more than accounted for by the re-redistricting of the Texas House seats and the pickup of southern Senate seats vacated by retiring Democrats. No, to me the confirming evidence that Karl Rove had ruined his realignment dreams was found in the state legislative results, where Democrats made net gains, foreshadowing what was to come in 2006 and 2008.

In any case, let me cut to a money quote, courtesy of the venerable elections analyst Lou Jacobson in this recent write-up of his state legislatures forecast:

Even though we’re still months away from the election, this cycle appears likely to become an especially volatile one. Just under one-third (31 percent) of the legislative chambers that are up this fall are considered “in play” — that is, rated tossup, lean Democratic or lean Republican. (Chambers that are likely Democratic/likely Republican and safe Democratic/safe Republican are not considered to be “in play,” at least for now.) That rate is several percentage points higher than any rating in this handicapping series going back to the fall of 2002, which also topped out at 31 percent. And in most recent cycles, the number of competitive chambers has risen as Election Day nears, putting 2010 on a course to be the most turbulent of the past decade..

Jacobson, who is staff writer for PolitiFact and the state legislative handicapper for Governing magazine, forecasts that 18 states are in play, with 21 Democratic chambers at risk compared to just four for the Republicans. (21 + 4 > 18 because in some states both chambers are in play.) Jacobson quotes National Conference of State Legislature’s analyst Tim Storey as saying: “This is going to be an extremely challenging year for Democrats for a variety of reasons. History is not on their side. Since 1900, the party in the White House loses seats in the legislature in every midterm except for 1934 and 2002. That’s a 2-25 losing streak for the party in the White House — a tough trend to break. Add to that the fact that Democrats are riding high right now at over 55 percent of all seats, and it shapes up to be possibly the worst election for Democrats since 1994.”

By the way, Tim Storey’s name should ring a bell with regular 538 readers. A year ago this week, back when the situation for Democrats looked far rosier, I wrote a post, based on NCSL data Storey shared with 538, about the historical control of state legislative seats. In that post I noted that the last time the Democrats has this high a share of total state legislative seats nationwide was during 1992-93, on the eve of their 1994 slaughter.

I reached Jacobson by email to ask him if he had any additional perspective to add. He wrote back to say the following:

Not sure I have too much to say beyond what’s in my overview piece (which I assume you’ve seen), but in the five cycles I’ve been handicapping these this is the worst shape that any party has been in, especially at this early point in the cycle. Worse than the 2006 and 2008 wave elections, worse than the 2002 anti-incumbent year. The worst recent comparison year is 1994, where the Dems took a big licking, but (1) I wasn’t handicapping then, so I can’t compare directly, and (2) my hunch is that 1994 developed more slowly, so at this point in the cycle it might not have looked quite so bad. None of this means that the Dems are destined for disaster, but it doesn’t look good.

So there is an eerie (and for many state-level Democrats, downright frightening) historical parallel here–yet another reason not to overlook the states this autumn.