The 2012 elections are still nearly six months away, but it’s not too early to begin to evaluate the likely impact of those elections on the partisan control of state governments. Although much can—and likely will—happen between now and November 6 to affect election outcomes, an analysis of the state legislative and gubernatorial landscape provides significant insight into the likely impact of the upcoming elections.
Wave after Wave?
Both 2008 and 2010 were considered “wave” elections. In 2008, at the national level, the electorate broke for the Democratic Party, and in 2010, it broke for the Republicans. Similar trends took place within state legislatures, with Democrats picking up a substantial number of state legislative seats in 2008 and Republicans countering in 2010. Looking at the partisan control of state governments, however, reveals a subtler trend.
Just prior to the 2008 elections, Democrats had full control—the Governor’s office and both chambers of the state legislature—in 16 states. Republicans had control in 10 states. Control was split—either the Governor’s office or at least one chamber of the legislature was held by the opposition party—in 23 states.
Before the 2010 elections, and following the 2008 “wave” election, Democrats still controlled 16 states, Republican 9 states and 24 states were split. In other words, the 2008 election wave, despite resulting in additional Democratic legislators, didn’t substantially change party control of the levers of state government. A major driver of the relative stability at the state level in 2008 is the fact that only eleven states elect governors in presidential election years. Additionally, Republicans made gains in the 2009 elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
The 2010 elections truly represented a wave at the state level, with Republicans making major gains. Today, Democrats control 11 states, Republicans control 24 states and only 14 states have split partisan control of state government. Nebraska, whose legislature is officially nonpartisan, is functionally also under Republican control. Republicans cemented their hold in the South, with breakthrough gains in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and other states. They also picked up unlikely victories in states like Maine. Democrats, although faring poorly overall, took governorships from Republicans in traditional liberal/progressive strongholds including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota and Vermont. Without those victories, the overall numbers for Democrats would have been historically poor.
Current Partisan Control of State Governments
Republican Likely to Continue Recent Successes in 2012
On November 7, regardless of the outcome of the Presidential election, Republicans are likely to be happy with their results in the states.
Republicans are defending the Governor’s office in only three states—Indiana, North Dakota and Utah—and are highly likely to retain all three. A special election to recall Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker will be held June 5. Democrats are defending seats in Delaware, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. At least half of these states, and as many as six of them, are potential or likely Republican victories. If Republicans were to win in Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina they would add four states to their tally of full partisan control based on current legislative splits.
There are fifteen or so state legislative chambers that are narrowly divided or where control of the chamber is split (Alaska Senate, Oregon House and Virginia Senate). It is more difficult to project the outcome of state legislative elections so far in advance, but Republicans are likely to pick up seats in both Arkansas legislative chambers and Democrats are likely to rebound from losing both Maine legislative chambers in 2010.
The map above will likely be mostly unchanged following the 2012 elections. In the northeast, Maine will likely move from red to purple; New Hampshire may turn red. Moving south, North Carolina is likely to move to red and Arkansas to purple. There is an outside chance that West Virginia may turn purple as well. Heading west, Montana is likely to move to red, and Washington could move to purple.
Based on the current partisan splits and the states where gubernatorial elections are being held, Democrats don’t have many opportunities to make significant gains. Colorado and Minnesota may be the only states where they have a potential to gain full control. New York potentially could go to the Democrats as well, but most observers think that unlikely. We’ll know in just a few weeks whether Democrats are likely to make significant gains in Wisconsin.
As noted at the outset, there is plenty of time for major changes to occur before the November elections. At this point, however, 2012 is not shaping up to be another wave election, and Republicans are likely to hold or increase their lead in control of state governments.