Rising Trump Boosts GOP in Legislative Contests
Republicans look to hold onto vast dominance in state legislatures
On Nov. 8, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton won’t be the only names on the ballot. There will be candidates scrambling for re-election or attempting to unseat incumbents in state legislative races all across the nation, and those contests in many ways will have more impact on voters than the presidential battle.
Republicans in particular will be looking to hold the gains they have made since President Obama won the White House in 2008. Since Obama assumed office, Republicans have picked up more than 900 seats once held by Democrats in state legislatures.
“We find that Hillary Clinton is unpopular across the state and that Trump does very well in our competitive [state legislative] districts.”
The GOP gained so many seats since Jan. 20, 2009, that there are now more than twice as many state legislatures in which both chambers are controlled by the GOP. Thirty state legislatures (that includes a Senate and the lower house) are held by Republicans, while Democrats control just 12.
Just seven are split between the parties, with Nebraska’s legislature unicameral and nonpartisan.
The Democrat losses in state capitals began in 2010 — which could not have come at a worse time for Democrats. The census then followed, and the GOP got the opportunity to redistrict the maps that, in many cases, a decade earlier had been inked to favor the Democrats.
The resulting favorable maps led to a further erosion in Democratic seats.
According to research done by the National Conference of State Legislatures earlier in September, the Republicans held 1,090 state Senate seats, or 55.3 percent of upper chamber seats. That’s compared to 827 Democratic state Senate seats, 52 nonaffiliated seats, and three vacancies. In 2009, the Republicans held 889 state Senate seats.
The Republicans hold 3,030 seats in the lower chambers, usually called state houses of representatives. That’s 56 percent of the total. The Democrats hold 2,343 House seats, with 26 nonaffiliated seats and 12 vacancies. In 2009, the Republicans held 2,334 state House seats.
According to Ballotpedia, 44 states have state House races this year; 42 will have state Senate races.
The presidential year can usually impact legislative races far down the ballot. But so far, state GOP officials in Michigan and Ohio say it’s more likely that Hillary Clinton is the drag on the Democrats.
“We find that Hillary Clinton is unpopular across the state and that Trump does very well in our competitive [state legislative] districts,” says Ronna Romney McDaniel, Michigan’s Republican state chairwoman.
Romney McDaniel said the seats that were viewed as competitive at the start of the year are still so, and did not change because of Trump.
The Michigan Republicans have 63 of the 110 seats in the state House of Representatives. On the Senate side, the Michigan Republicans have a supermajority of 27 of 38 seats. At such a high watermark, Romney McDaniel said she expects the GOP majorities to roughly hold — not to make big gains or to have substantial losses.
If Trump adds anything to the Michigan ballot, it’s positive, Romney McDaniel says. Romney McDaniel, who is Mitt Romney’s niece, said her uncle didn’t visit the state after the 2012 GOP convention. Trump, on the other hand, has been to Michigan three times since the convention.
“We like the candidate being here,” Romney McDaniel said. “We think it helps.”
The Democrats are targeting gains in Michigan’s House, which is part of a plan to start winning back legislative chambers before the next census. The plan is called Advantage 2020.
In Ohio, where Democrats are pouring tens of millions of dollars to help Hillary Clinton and their U.S. Senate candidate, the Democratic campaigns for state Senate and state House are less vigorous.
Brittany Warner, communications director for the Ohio Republican Party and director for the Ohio House campaign in 2014, said Democrats have had money issues and recruitment problems because of the strong majorities the GOP has in the Ohio House and Senate.
The GOP has a near supermajority in the Ohio House of 65 out of 99 seats. The Ohio GOP has a Senate supermajority of 23 of 33 seats.
Warner said despite all the Democratic money flowing into Ohio, it cannot likely help the legislative races, as the Democrats have a weaker political infrastructure. The biggest help for down-ballot Democrats and Republicans in Ohio is the turnout the presidential race cranks out, Warner said.
As for Trump’s effect down-ballot, Warner said it’s likely helping the GOP. According to the Ohio secretary of state’s office, since the March presidential primaries, more than 1 million Ohio voters have gone from unaffiliated, or Democratic, to Republican. Of that number, 115,000 were Democrats jumping ship.
Far fewer Ohio Republicans — 35,000 — became Democrats, with another 710,000 unaffiliated voters becoming Democrats.
Warner said that positive GOP trend even led the Mahoning County Democratic Party to fire 18 precinct committee persons for crossing party lines to vote in the Ohio GOP primary.
The excitement at the top of the ticket is prodding new voters and volunteers to show up, Romney McDaniel said.
“We’re seeing the groundswell,” said Romney McDaniel.
Republican state leaders in Indiana are even getting cocky about how unpopular Hillary Clinton is in comparison to Trump. At a Wednesday press availability, Rex Early, a former state GOP chairman and the head of Trump’s Indiana campaign, suggested Trump has down-ballot coattails while Clinton causes her allies, including U.S. Senate candidate Evan Bayh, to flee.
“In reality, [Democratic candidates] probably would rather have a dead rat in their mouth than have a picture with Hillary,” said Early.