Republicans seek to hold gains of 2010 in state legislatures
BY DENNIS CAUCHON USA TODAY
Monday, November 05, 2012
11/05/12 at 5:44 AM
Read all the election coverage.
WASHINGTON - One of Tuesday's biggest election night mysteries is whether Republicans can hold on to historic gains they made in state legislatures in 2010.
Two years ago, Republicans won 700 extra seats nationwide and now have more state legislators than anytime since 1928. The Republican tidal wave played a key role in conservative efforts to overhaul schools, limit union power, control spending and slow down the new federal health-care law.
While the presidential race has captured most national attention this year, the battle to control state legislatures has been nearly as fierce. The state races have drawn more than $1 billion in campaign spending, boosted by a flood of money from national groups also active in the presidential and congressional campaigns.
The races remain old-fashioned in one important way: Polling is scarce in state legislative races, so the results remain true election-night surprises.
"We're going to make some nice gains this cycle," predicted Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. His Republican counterpart is just as confident. "We see twice as many opportunities for pickups as for losses," said Republican State Leadership Committee political director Matt Walter.
A total 6,030 of the nation's 7,383 legislative seats are at stake Tuesday, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The only states without legislative elections are Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia.
About 20 of the nation's 98 legislative chambers are within striking distance of the other party, says elections expert Tim Storey at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin are among the states with chambers in play. Longer-shot possibilities include Kentucky and New Mexico.
State legislatures have attracted more attention and money this year because few governor races are competitive, Storey says. Yet fewer chambers may change parties than usual, partly because Republican victories in 2010 put them in charge of redrawing legislative districts in many states after the Census, Storey says.
"Republicans picked the right year to win," he said. Also, legislative races generally follow the winning margin in presidential races, Storey says. This year's tight presidential race probably means smaller shifts in state legislatures, he says.
Arkansas is the top Republican target. The state has been in Democratic hands since 1874 and is the only former Confederate state that hasn't gone Republican. Democrats have a 20-15 advantage in the Arkansas Senate and a 54-46 margin in the House.
A massive advertising effort attacks Arkansas' Democratic state legislators on national issues, linking them to President Obama, who trails Mitt Romney in the state by more than 20 percentage points in polls.
"Our state's Democrats have aligned with the policies of Barack Obama and been unmasked as liberals," said Arkansas Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb.
Democrats have distanced themselves from the president, focused on local issues and emphasized their connection to Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who is not on the ballot.
"People know me," said Democratic state Rep. Linda Tyler, who is running for a crucial Senate seat in Conway, Ark. "I tell people what I have done and what I will do as a senator."
In a series of mailings and automated phone calls, an outside group provided Tyler's home phone number and asked voters to call and complain about Obamacare. The retired business executive answered or returned every phone call, more than 90.
Democrats have played hardball, too. Her Republican opponent, Sen. Jason Rapert, lost his current district when new legislative boundaries were drawn in a process controlled by the Democratic governor and attorney general. Only 2 percent of Rapert's old district is included in his race against Tyler.
The big Democratic target is Minnesota. Republicans took control of both chambers in 2010. They now have a 37-30 advantage in the state Senate and a 72-62 margin in the House.
"With so many first-time candidates winning, it's always a challenge to have so many new seats to defend," said Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers.
He says his party is being outspent by labor unions and donations from the wealthy ex-wife of the current Minnesota governor, Mark Dayton. "We will be outspent but not outworked," he said.
"For whatever reason, Minnesotans sent a governor who wanted to raise taxes to work with a Legislature that didn't want to raise taxes. It wasn't a good mix," Zellers said.
Original Print Headline: GOP seeks to hold 2010 gains in state legislatures