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Mid-Terms in the States

December 22, 2013

Mid-term elections are usually rough for the party that holds the presidency, especially in the second term. So 2014 is likely to be a hard year for national Democrats.

Only the most ardent Democratic partisan holds much hope for re-taking the House of Representatives next November. More realistic Democrats are just hoping to hold onto the Senate. The seats that are up in 2014 were mostly won in 2008, which was arguably the best year for national Democrats since 1964. Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election in 2014, 20 held by Democrats and 14 held by Republicans. If we assume that 2008 was a stand-out year, and not a new normal, we would expect to see some regression toward the mean in 2014.

Some particulars underscore the point. Of the Republicans-held Senate seats, few will be competitive. Maine would be very competitive if incumbent Republican Senator Susan Collins wasn’t running for re-election, but she is. Kentucky looks competitive in recent polling, and it sure would be fun to watch Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell get himself involuntarily retired. In Georgia, former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn’s daughter, Michelle Nunn, is running competitively with the Republican primary candidates. There isn’t much else there for Democrats, although Republican primary wins by far-right Tea Partiers could make a couple of other states competitive.

On the Democratic side, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia could all be problematic.

The 2014 elections could be much more Democrat-favorable in the states. Just as 2008 was a great year for Democrats, 2010 was a great year for Republicans. Lots of state legislatures and governors went from Democrat to Republican that year. Governors have four-year terms, so the Class of 2010 comes up in full in 2014. Most state senates also have four-year terms, plus a few of the states’ lower houses. All of those that Republicans won in 2010 come up again in 2014, so Democrats have lots of opportunities.

Republicans control both houses of 28 state legislatures – including Nebraska, which has only one house and is nominally non-partisan, but really, it’s Nebraska so I’m counting it as Republican. Democrats control 17 legislatures; only five are split, with each party controlling one house. Of the 28 states with Republican-controlled legislatures 25 also have Republican governors. Thirty-six governors are up for election in 2014. Republicans are defending in 22, and Democrats in 14.

So on the numbers alone – again assuming some regression toward the mean – 2014 looks pretty good for Democrats. Some of the particulars look especially good.

Republicans are defending governorships in nine states that President Obama won in 2012: Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Some of those governors have become unpopular, like Rick Scott in Florida and Paul LePage in Maine.

Furthermore, in five of those states, Republicans are also defending both houses of the legislature: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In all five of those states, state senators hold four-year terms – so Republicans’ big gains of 2010 are up for reconsideration in 2014.

By contrast, Democrats are defending in only one state that President Obama lost in 2012: Arkansas.

There are other state elections of note, of course. For instance, in both New York and Washington, Republicans hold state senate majorities due to a small number of Democratic defectors. In each case, a shift of just a seat or two could turn a red state senate blue.

Aside from the numbers, I am hopeful because I see rumblings of a new populism in the country – populism that rejects the Republican worldview that invests material success with moral dimension, that condemns government assistance to individuals (except for veterans) as rewarding undeserving takers and punishing virtuous makers. I see dismay in the country about the Republican obsessions with abortion, Obamacare, same-sex marriage, immigration and the debt ceiling. Americans love optimism, and Republicans today are not the party of optimism.

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