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For Democrats: Red Alert in the States

For Democrats: Red Alert in the States

By David Paul Kuhn - October 26, 2010

Republicans are likely to have the advantage drawing congressional seats for the first time since the modern redistricting process began in the 1980s.

Welcome to the furthest reaches of the coming Republican wave. The GOP is on track to win at least the House in one week. But the story extends far beyond Washington. Republicans' gains in the states will likely match those in Congress, or possibly exceed them.

Key swing state legislatures could switch to the GOP. Watch the Ohio House and both chambers in Wisconsin. Nationally, 88 of the 99 legislative chambers are on the line. Republicans won not only Congress in 1994. They won more than 500 state legislative seats. And this year, analogies to 1994 are apt for more reasons than Congress.

There are also 37 governorships on the ballot in 2010. RealClearPolitics estimates that Republicans will pick up at least six new governors posts, possibly more. Republicans are sure to win some swing state governorships from Democrats (Iowa and Michigan). Pennsylvania is another potential GOP pick up, though the race tightened this month. Mega swing states, like Ohio and Florida, are nail biters.

Al Gore can explain why these races are national matters. In 2000, the GOP controlled the Florida governorship and secretary of state post. This offered Republicans added weight in deciding that messiest of presidential elections.

State elections are certainly worth watching for local reasons. State legislatures enact 20,000 new laws and manage 1.5 trillion in budgets annually, according to Tim Storey, a leading expert on state politics at the National Conference of State Legislatures. This is roads, education and healthcare politics. It's the politics that is closest to the people.

Yet every ten years, state politics is national politics. Congressional seats are redrawn with the new census data. Power does not mean total carte blanche to change borders. But the party that controls the statehouse redraws the districts in most states. Control of the governorship is key in many states as well. Republicans gains this year could shift dozens of seats from blue to red over time.

"The line drawings have pretty substantial restrictions," Storey warned. "But if Republicans run the table they could have unilateral authority to redraw lines for 100 more districts than the Democrats."

Simply put, the state of the states is about to change. Congressional elections are referendums on the party in power. But so are the state midterm contests. The president's party has lost seats in both chambers of Congress in all but two elections since 1900-- 1934 and 2002 are the exceptions. Those same years are the exceptions to another rule since 1900: the president's party loses state legislative seats in midterm elections.

Democrats' projected losses in the states however, like Congress, are exceptionally large this year. One contributing factor is the cost of earlier victories. It's the same story as Congress here too. Past winners have more to lose. Democrats have gained state seats in the previous three elections. They currently control both chambers in 27 states. About 55 percent of all state legislative seats are blue.

More than 6,000 legislative seats will be decided next week. Between 400 and 500 blue seats will likely turn red, according to projections by Emory's Alan Abramowitz. The GOP's final tally could be even larger, if the current poll numbers hold true. Republicans might also win the majority from Democrats in 15 to 18 state legislative chambers. These are landslide numbers. It means Republicans are not only poised to gain control in key states but also parity in state legislative seats nationally, perhaps even the lead.

The other matter is Democrats' decline. The blue party's fall has greatly enhanced the GOP wave. Abramowitz's research shows a strong correlation between congressional results and the outcome in state legislatures. Post-war landslides in Congress--1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994 and 2006--produced similar landslides in the states.

Midterm outcomes in the states, like Congress, are also strongly correlated to presidential approval. Obama's approval rating bobs in the 40s. That bodes badly for Democrats at all levels.

Democrats have had a year to warm to this nightmare. But one week from now, that bad dream will likely become reality. And its scope is only beginning to be understood. A GOP wave is rising from Washington to state houses. In Storey's words, "I wish I had a franchise on panic buttons."

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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