Republican State Lawmakers Grasp Bush’s Coattails
President Bush has surged in his bid for a second term by tapping into Americans’ anxieties about foreign policy and terrorism. Can this message trickle down and boost the prospects of Republican candidates for state legislatures? [IMGCAP(1)]
Analyzed rationally, the notion seems silly. Since time immemorial, the staples of campaigns for legislature have been tax policy, education, public services spending and criminal justice, with supporting roles for health care, legal reform and the environment. Legislators exert significant authority over each of these areas.
But what can a humble state legislator possibly do to improve the outlook for post-Saddam Iraq, or to secure international support for rounding up terrorists?
Such implausibilities haven’t stopped Republicans running for state legislatures from actively riding Bush’s national security coattails. And the strange thing is, their strategy might be just crazy enough to work.
“There will be, if not coattails, then at least an effort by Republicans to create coattails nationally,” said Thom Little, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who works for the bipartisan State Legislative Leaders Foundation. “This is one of the few wartime elections in the last century, and that has changed the dynamic. Everybody is talking about security.”
Many voters, he added, may not be sufficiently knowledgeable about the inner workings of government to realize that state legislators have limited sway over homeland security issues.
While acknowledging that the tactic of legislators touting security as an issue is “somewhat unusual,” Alex Johnson, the executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, said that Republican legislators and candidates are undeterred.
“Republicans all around the country are trying to attract women with the security issue, and they think they can use that effectively,” he said.
Since Bush’s security-driven bounce began, Johnson said, GOP candidates for legislative seats “feel much more confident. Ever since Labor Day, I’m hearing more optimism from legislators. There’s
a general feeling about the top of the ticket — they feel good about themselves, and they hope that translates at the polls.”
Democrats, naturally, are skeptical.
“In every piece of research we’re seeing, the predominant issues for what people want state government to focus on are the economy and jobs,” said Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “Health care and education are also on the list. And all of those are issues that we as Democrats have greater trust from the voters.”
Independent analysts agree that if widespread presidential coattails materialize this year for legislative candidates, it would be unprecedented.
“It’s not just a gut feeling — there’s research behind it,” said Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “The notion of coattails for legislative races is usually overblown.”
The one area in which top-of-the-ballot races are most likely to have an effect is by shaping turnout. Both presidential campaigns are working aggressively to boost the turnout of their base supporters, and this could bring more party-line, straight-ticket voters to the polls this year.
But both parties (or their allies among 527 groups) are working hard on such get-out-the-vote strategies, mostly in the 10 to 15 states that are considered presidential battlegrounds. As it happens, many of these states do not have legislative chambers that are considered competitive this year. The key exceptions, according to ratings by the Rothenberg Political Report, are the Democratic-held Maine Senate, Washington House and Nevada House; the Republican-held Washington Senate and Iowa House and Senate; and the currently tied Oregon Senate.
A more pointed question is whether narrowly held chambers in solidly red or blue states might succumb under the weight of a solid statewide victory by either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). In this category, the GOP is much better placed to gain ground in the legislatures this fall.
Only one strong blue state is home to a chamber with a wobbly Republican majority: Vermont’s House. By contrast, five red states are home to eight chambers controlled by wobbly Democratic majorities or power-shares: two chambers each in North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee, plus one chamber each in Georgia and Indiana.
Georgia’s House is a good example of the Democrats’ potential peril. To widespread surprise in 2002, Georgia Republicans swept a U.S. Senate seat, the governorship and control of the state Senate, plus a few Congressional races they had not counted on winning. Today, the Democrats in the state House have 33 more seats than the Republicans do, but even that sizable a majority is no longer considered solid. All the GOP needs to do is win enough seats to convince a couple more conservative Democrats to switch parties after Election Day.
To be sure, Democrats in charge of narrowly divided chambers may stand a better chance in states where gubernatorial coattails can balance out presidential ones. In Indiana, for instance, Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan is running neck-and-neck with Republican Mitch Daniels, and in Tennessee, the popular Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, may help salvage his party’s legislative majorities even though his state has become increasingly Republican over the past 10 years.
Nationally, the GOP controls an exceedingly narrow majority of the nation’s 7,382 legislative seats — right now, a margin of about 60 seats. Typically, 12 chambers have changed hands each cycle in the past decade, with the 2002 cycle meeting this average of 12 exactly. (This per-cycle average includes shifts of control that take place in off-year elections or due to post-Election Day party switchers; one chamber has already changed hands this election cycle.)
But the 2002 cycle was the first to be held after the most recent decennial round of redistricting, which gave that cycle more volatility than others. The 2002 election also took place at the depths of budget crises in many states, which fed voters’ surliness with whoever was presiding over their state, regardless of party.
Given this backdrop, the early line on 2004 is that it will feature somewhat less upheaval.
For one thing, the “playing field” is smaller this year. This has much to do with redistricting, which — as was the case with Congressional line-drawing — was driven by ultra-precise computer software that established a greater number of safe seats for each party. One expert on legislatures estimates that 40 percent of seats are now safe for the Democrats and 40 percent are safe for the Republicans.
The remaining 20 percent of seats are being fiercely contested by the national organizations — the DLCC and the RLCC.
“They’re stepping up and raising more money,” said the NCSL’s Storey. “Those guys are probably as organized as I’ve ever seen them before.”