Downballot GOP Blues?
The Effect of a Democratic Tidal Wave on Control of State Legislatures

History shows Democrats are poised to make large state legislative gains. In a national tidal wave by one party, that party can pick up an enormous share of state legislative seats even if only a relatively marginal number of U.S. House seats change hands. This year, there are 6,119 state legislative contests in 46 states. 37% of these seats are uncontested by one of the major parties, making it seem like these are either missed opportunities for Democrats in a tidal-wave year, or the partisanship of these districts is so solid that the parties wisely avoided wasting resources in them.

In reality, the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates that Democratic candidates account for 64% of uncontested state house races and 56% of uncontested state senate races – similar to the congressional trend where Democrats are fielding candidates in 426 of 435 House races, while Republicans are only fielding candidates in 392 of 435 races, in sharp contrast to 2004 when Republicans ran seven more candidates than Democrats.

As an indication of what this advantage in candidacies could mean, the Republican national wave in 1994 led to an increase of 514 Republican state legislative seats. The vast disparity between uncontested Republican and Democratic legislative seats in a tidal-wave year creates more of an opportunity for surprising Democratic pick-ups.

More importantly, there are twenty state legislative chambers where the balance of power rests on five or fewer seats. Ten of these are Republican-controlled or tied legislatures, giving the Democrats the opportunity to win control of a majority of legislatures in the United States and to solidify control of the ten remaining chambers where they currently hold narrow majorities.
In the debate over the wisdom of Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy, one measurement will be these ten potential chamber pick-ups: five of them are in states that George Bush won in 2004: Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, and Tennessee. If these Democratic state legislators can stay in office, they can help shape these states’ future agendas and congressional district lines in 2011. They also create a farm team of potential candidates for higher office: Montana’s Jon Tester, for example, was likely boosted in his current U.S. Senate race by publicity he received as president of the state senate.