Election 2016

Why 2014 Won't Be Anything Like a Blowout Election for Republicans in State Elections

Despite all the doomsday talk, there's plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Democrat Sara Gesler is a state senate candidate in Oregon.
Photo Credit: saragesler.com

It’s become fashionable for politicos to predict that 2014 will be another boffo election for Republican candidates at all levels.

The New York Times this week reported that the GOP is likely to emerge with new majorities in perhaps nine state legislative chambers. Republicans currently control 60 of America’s 99 state assemblies or senates, and have monopolies on power in 36 states—the most since the 1950s.

But a closer look reveals that 2014 is not going to be a slam-dunk for the GOP in state legislatures. Instead, Democrats stand a good chance of breaking the Republican grip on power in five states—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Arkansas, New Hampshire—while maintaining current partisan divisions in others. That’s nowhere close to reversing 2010’s Republican wave, but it’s not merely holding the line, either.

“I think there are a lot of seats in play and a lot of chambers in play on both sides,” said Kurt Fritts, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee national political director. “I don’t think this is a year where Democrats are necessarily on the defensive. I know we have a lot of offensive opportunities out there.”

On top of the five states where Democrats stand a good chance of winning state senate or house majority, Fritts said Democrats could make New Hampshire and Maine fully blue, where Democrats control the legislature and governor’s mansion. That scenario was not in the Times’ analysis. He also predicted that there will be voter backlash in some states where Tea Partiers won since 2010—North Carolina, Georgia and Michigan—but those gains likely would not add up to new Democratic majorities.   

“The interesting thing about this cycle is there is no overwhelming national narrative,” he said. “What that means is these races are going to be fought based upon what’s going on in these states, based against what the electoral landscape is at the top of the ticket in each of these states, and based upon the strength of individual candidates. That’s partly why we feel very confident in states like Pennsylvania, where there’s a very unpopular Republican governor at the top of the ticket. That bodes very well for us.”

Jill Bader, a spokeswomen for Fritts’ counterpart, the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, agreed that states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan would be electoral battlegrounds, but she also thought Democrats were far being too optimistic.

“What we are seeing is overwhelming anti-Obama sentiment, even in purple states,” she said Tuesday. “If the Democrats think they will be winning, they are in fantasy land. We will do better than protect our majorities.”

This week, the RLCC was meeting in Colorado, where Bader said the party was targeting 14 key state house and senate races across the country. Its “2014 Path to Victory” memo listed state races in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Washington and West Virginia. “These are just 14 great candidates, they are candidates in targeted seats that, in many instances, could flip legislative control to Republicans,” their forecast said. In California, electing one state senator could break a Democratic super majority in that chamber, the memo said. In Colorado and Nevada, Republicans need one additional seat to flip control.

“Obama has dismal job approval numbers,” Bader said. “When the president has those kinds of numbers, we gain seats—not hold seats.”

Many mainstream media pundits agree with Bader’s calculus. The Times said the likely GOP gains would be “taking advantage of President Obama’s persistent unpopularity, anxiety about the economy, and a history of anemic turnout among Democrats in non-presidential election years.”

Bader and Fritts are both working to hype their parties' prospects. But compared to the last congressional midterm election in 2010, Democrats are trying harder to turn out their base this year. Arkansas is a good illustration. It has active campaigns for governor and U.S. senator, the top of the ticket. At the state legislative level, Democrats are likely to win the house, the Times said, while Republicans are likely to win the senate.

“The president didn’t compete for Arkansas in 2012,” Fritts said. “There was not a reason for Democrats to come out and vote. This year there is, because they have a very high-profile governor’s race and U.S. Senate race. It matches up well for us, in terms of the opportunity there in the legislature.”

Fritts detailed other races with factors that could help Democrats. In New York state, for example, there have been a handful of so-called independent Democrats in the senate who often vote with Republicans. This fall, however, it’s likely that seats vacated by retiring Republicans will be won by Democrats, ending that problem. He also took issue with the Times’ projection that Oregon’s senate would fall into Republican hands.

Fritts also questioned the GOP strategy of running against Obama as a key theme.

“They’re not even talking about repealing Obamacare anymore,” he said. “I think they assumed they would run against this president and do it wrapped around Obamacare. They backed away from that across the board, because they realized their message of kicking people off of health insurance is not really the right message to take.”

On the Republican side, Bader said Democrats don’t fully understand what Republicans, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies, have achieved for their base. Walker ended a budget deficit and saw 100,000 jobs created under his watch, she said, citing examples that Democrats obviously interpret very differently.

“I think Republicans get that government is not the answer to the problems that are facing their constituencies,” Bader said, when asked what Democrats do not understand about the GOP. “When you get government out of the way, and get people off of 'entitlement' programs and get them working, that’s the right way to go. It’s not about growing government, it’s about growing jobs in the private sector. A dependence on government is not what Republicans focus on.”

What this all means is that Democrats—especially those running at the state level—do not all face electoral doomsday this fall. If anything, it appears that Democrats will take one chamber in several states with some of the most draconian Republican governors. That outcome would force Republicans to negotiate instead of pushing through an ideological agenda, because states, unlike Congress, tend to govern.

As Labor Day approaches and the final stretches of the 2014 election come into view, don’t believe that this fall’s electoral outcome is a foregone conclusion. In many states, the biggest issues and most pressing concerns have nothing to do with Obama.

“The Republicans always want to nationalize the election—it makes it easier for them,” Fritts said. “It is just not going to be that kind of election this year.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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