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Dems Headed for Potential State House Disaster

Dems Headed for Potential State House Disaster

By Sean Trende - July 19, 2010

Four months out from Election Day, the Democrats will probably lose the House and are in some danger of losing the Senate. But losing those legislative bodies would not be the most damaging aspect of the impending tsunami heading toward the Democratic Party. After all, Barack Obama will still be in the White House to stop the congressional Republicans from accomplishing much.

The biggest danger to the Democrats comes from the losses that they are poised to endure in the Governor's races. These losses are likely to be massive, and illustrate the size of the impending voter revolt. And they could not come at a worse time. Combined with likely statehouse gains, they threaten to put Republicans in charge of redistricting for the first time in several generations, and will potentially provide the GOP with a top-tier crop of Presidential hopefuls in the future.

The Democrats have dominated the governorships in post-Depression politics. Take the following chart, which tracks the annual percentage of governorships held by Democrats since the end of Reconstruction (we have to do this annually; some states had 1- or 3-year gubernatorial terms for much of this time frame):

From 1931 through 1994, Democrats fell below a majority of governorships only 8 times. The 1994 blowout dropped them to 39% of the governorships, though they returned to parity after the 2006 elections. Their absolute worst results in the past 134 years came in 1921 and 1922, when the Harding landslide took them down to 29% of the seats.

This year, Democrats are poised to test that floor. Consider today's RealClearPolitics No Toss Up Map, which shows the state of the 2010 Governor races based off of the latest RCP Averages and polls:

Based on this, Democrats are headed toward holding 28% of the Governor's seats. This is their lowest result since the ending of Reconstruction allowed for fully competitive gubernatorial elections in all states. It is well below their 134-year average of 55% of seats held.

Looking more closely at the polls, two open Democratic governorships are almost certainly lost: Wyoming and Kansas. Losses for an incumbent in Iowa and in the open Oklahoma gubernatorial race seem nearly as certain. Four more open seats (for a total of eight) seem to lean toward the Republicans: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Few seats seem likely to offset this. Democrats will probably pick up the open Republican Governor's seat in Hawaii, where Barack Obama won with 72% of the vote. Ned Lamont, the likely Democratic nominee in Connecticut, is in good position to pick up that seat for the Democrats.

Beyond those races, the Democrats' prospects are limited. Further emphasizing what a bad year it is shaping up to be for Democrats in the state houses, only four governorships that they presently hold are leaning toward them or better: New York, Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Even in that last state, Deval Patrick would probably be in deep trouble if not for a third party candidate splitting the anti-Patrick vote.

So even before we get to the "tossups" category, Republicans are poised to regain the majority of the governorships. Twenty-six seats at least lean their way (or are not up this year). The following table shows the present RCP Average in these tossup states:

A few things stand out. First, all of the tossup states are states that went for Barack Obama in the last election, and all except for Colorado and Ohio gave him double-digit wins. Second, the plight of the three incumbent Democratic Governors here is probably worse than their poll numbers show. All three are incumbents running below 45% in the polls, which is usually the kiss of death for an incumbent (one possible exception is O'Malley, who is running against a former Governor; normal "incumbent 50% rule" observations may not apply in this situation). Third, a lot of these races are extremely close, and could turn on a dime.

Now it is by no means certain that the GOP will win all of these races, or even most of them. A case in point is Colorado, where GOP frontrunner Scott McInnis is imploding over a plagiarism scandal, and where the alternative has about $30,000 cash-on-hand.

Going off of the RCP Averages and latest polls, if the election were today, Republicans would be looking at a 11 seat pickup, leaving the nation's state houses split, 35 - 14 - 1 in favor of the GOP. That would be a 23% swing in governorships toward the Republicans. To put that in perspective, consider the following chart of the fifteen biggest swings in governorships, and the accompanying swing in House seats:

Now I'm not trying to formally model this; there are obviously a few false positives here (1954 and 1970) as well as some false negatives (1946, 1974 and 1958 were reasonably quiet gubernatorial years). My point is more modest: that generally speaking, shifts in governorships of the magnitude of which we are talking are accompanied by significant shifts in the makeup of the House of Representatives. Just doing some back-of-the envelope math, if the Democrats lose 15% of their caucus, they lose the House. Nine of the fourteen elections shown here show a similar shift in the House, many are quite a bit worse. And if we look at the races where the party in power has lost 20% or more of its governorships, it loses, on average, 29% of its caucus. That would be about seventy-five seats today.

This could not come at a worse time for the Democratic Party. If this is a wave election, it will be Republicans all the way down. In 2006, a fairly modest wave election, Republicans lost about 400 seats in the state houses. I'll write on this in more detail in the next few weeks, but there are a number of chambers that are presently narrowly divided, where a flip of five or fewer seats could give the chamber to the Republicans.

If the Republicans win just the Governor's races in which they are presently leading, and flip the chambers that are close, Republicans would control redistricting (using current reapportionment projections) for 214 House seats, and have a say in another 149. Democrats, on the other hand, would control redistricting for only 33 House seats, and have a say in the same 149. The remainders are either single-district states like Delaware, or are governed by non-partisan redistricting commissions. This could have brutal consequences for the Democratic Party for the next decade.

In addition, Governors form a farm team for a party's Presidential prospects; part of the Republicans' problem in 2008 and going into 2012 is the shellacking they took in the Governors' races in 2006. Having that potential team reduced to fourteen, several of which are from small states, is not a good thing for the Democrats, especially if they get walloped in the Senate as well. Republicans, on the other hand, have a chance at turning out some real superstars, and candidates like Nikki Haley or Brian Sandoval could bring some much-needed diversity to the GOP ticket in 2016, or even 2012.

There is still time for the Democrats to turn things around somewhat - the difference between 14 seats and 20 seats is a fairly small shift in the national environment. But if they don't, they will be feeling the consequences for a very long time.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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