2011 State Races Presage 2012 Vote

By Steve Arthur, Vice President

Updated October 5, 2011

While the Republican presidential debates have been the focus of the national media in recent weeks, there are state elections this fall that may provide some early indications about what may happen at the ballot box next year.

One early indicator was this week’s special election in West Virginia to fill the remaining year of Joe Manchin’s gubernatorial term (Manchin was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election last year.) Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin had been leading Republican Bill Maloney by huge gaps early in the race, but a Public Policy Polling poll released a day before the election showed Tomblin’s lead down to a single point. With the Republican Governors’ Association (RGA) airing a television ad tying Governor Tomblin to “ObamaCare,” an upset victory by Maloney would have shown that Democrats who supported the health care plan should continue to be worried. In the end, Tomblin was able to win a narrow 50%-47% victory. Although, the lead paragraph of the AP story on the result said Tomblin won by “successfully distancing himself from the Obama administration and the president’s health care plan.” This is not going to help Democrats sleep very well.

There are three other gubernatorial elections this fall, although the outcome of those races does not seem in doubt. Republican Governor Jindal is an overwhelming favorite to win a second term and may very well do it by winning over 50% in the open primary on October 22. In Kentucky, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear is now leading his Republican opponent by 31 points in a new WHAS/Courier-Journal poll and should have no trouble winning re-election. And in Mississippi, Republican Lt. Governor Phil Bryant should cruise to victory in his race against Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree.

While the Mississippi Governor’s race may not keep people up late on Election night, the state House of Representatives races might. With the Mississippi Senate already controlled by Republicans, Democrats want to maintain control of the State House. However, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, Republicans are making a major effort to take control of that body for the first time since Reconstruction. They have brought in a campaign strategist who led the Republican effort in North Carolina to take control of that state’s legislature. Eight seats need to change from (D) to (R) in order for Republicans to take control, and if they don’t succeed in flipping the chamber, I believe they will come very close.

In Iowa, a special election will be held November 8 for a State Senate seat that became vacant when Governor Branstad’s appointment of Democratic Senator Swati Dandekar to a state board. As the Des Moines Register reports, the Senate district has more registered Republicans than Democrats, so it is a prime target for a party switch. What makes the seat especially important is that Democrats currently have a one seat majority in the Senate, so if Republicans were to win the seat, the chamber would be evenly divided between the parties. There is no mechanism to break ties in the Iowa Senate (Lt. Governor has no role), so a power sharing agreement will need to be reached if the seat flips. Again, with Republicans much more enthusiastic about voting nationally than Democrats, the GOP could take another chamber away from Democratic control, even if it is just to an even split.

Finally, Republicans are making an all out push to take back control of the Virginia State Senate, which they lost in 2007. They would need to take 3 seats from the Democrats to regain control, and they are making a major push to win those seats. Governor McDonnell, whose victory in 2009 began the Republican resurgence after the drubbings they took in 2006 and 2008, has been actively involved in the effort to take back the Senate according to the Roanoke Times. Taking three seats may be tough, but again, the enthusiasm gap Republicans currently enjoy might be enough to make that happen.

Any single race can be dismissed by the losing party as a fluke, but Democrats should take some comfort in the West Virginia victory. However, a 3 point victory in a state with a 2-1 Democratic advantage is not something I would point to as a harbinger of better times ahead. If the Republicans are able to run the table on the legislative races – taking control of the Mississippi House, Virginia Senate and winning the special election in Iowa—Democrats should remain very concerned about their prospects in 2012.

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