POLITICS: PennAve

Republicans eye state legislature gains in November

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Politics,Betsy Woodruff,Republican Party,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,State Legislatures

Though Congress hasn't exactly been action-packed of late, state legislatures around the country have more than compensated.

And the kind of statehouse fireworks that comes from single-party control -- from Vermont's new GMO food-labeling law to Texas' ban on abortions after 20 weeks -- shows little sign of abatement, as a number of legislative chambers could potentially flip this November.

It doesn't look like another 2010-esque wave election is in the works -- Republicans won the bulk of the winnable state-legislature contests during the first Tea Party surge that year. But a handful of chambers could be moving rightward, and potentially with far-reaching policy consequences.

Observers concur that the West Virginia House is among the chambers most likely to flip.

“West Virginia is a red state, there’s no question about that,” said Hoppy Kercheval, a longtime radio broadcaster and political observer there. “The elections are kind of catching up to that.”

The state was reliably Democratic in presidential contests until 2000 (it was one of 10 states that voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988), but flipped for George W. Bush's first White House bid and never flopped back in presidential elections.

Since then, the state has been steadily reddening. Its sole Democratic congressman, Nick Rahall, is one of this cycle's most vulnerable incumbents, and its open U.S. Senate seat -- held by Democrat Jay Rockefeller since 1985 -- will likely be filled by a Republican this fall.

So GOPers see West Virginia's House of Delegates as low-hanging fruit. Kercheval said it’s “very likely” that Democrats' slim 53-47 majority will disappear in November. The state Senate would be significantly tougher for Republicans to flip, but it’s not totally unrealistic, especially given the state’s rightward trend over recent cycles.

Meanwhile, some Rust Belt states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, could present opportunities for Democrats to shrink the size of Republicans' majorities. Mark Grebner, a Democratic consultant from Michigan, is bearish about the odds of a red-to-blue flip in the state House.

"I'm a Democrat, and I'd say it's competitive and we're going to lose," he said, adding that gerrymandering makes it unlikely Democrats will flip that chamber.

The state Democratic Party is more bullish.

“We’re just five seats away from taking back majority in Lansing,” said Josh Pugh, a spokesman for the state party. “And I think with Republicans having to explain their record, there’s no question that Democrats are absolutely on offense and that we like where we sit.”

National Republicans will also keep a cautious eye on both Wisconsin chambers.

“You just know that there’s a very strong symbolic sense by the Democrats that that should be their state,” said Matt Walter, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

In Kentucky, Republicans are keeping their fingers crossed about another potential win. Democrats have controlled the Kentucky House of Representatives since the 1920s, and a Republican victory would be tricky. That said, national Republicans have an eye on the state, and may invest in trying to flip the chamber. Walter said his group is mulling a number of possible ways to play in the race, including an independent expenditure.

State GOPers got a head start on their efforts in December, when Republican candidate Suzanne Miles won a special election to fill a seat vacated by a Democratic member who stepped down amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' decision to run for U.S. Senate will help her party in down-ballot races. John McCarthy, a former Kentucky Republican Party chairman, said that flipping the House would be easier if Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell didn't have a competitive general election challenger.

The New Mexico House is also on national Republicans' radar. Democrats have held it since the 1950s, but Republicans have chipped away at their majority over the last few cycles. And, per the Republican State Leadership Committee's political director, Justin Richards, having Gov. Susana Martinez at the top of the ticket in November may give down-ballot Republicans the boost they need to win three seats and flip the chamber.

Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based free-market think tank Rio Grande Foundation, said another factor could make New Mexico voters interested in changing their legislature's leadership:

“Our economy is atrocious,” he said. “There’s no other way to sugarcoat it. It’s been bad.”

A report from the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research ranked the state 48th in the country for job growth.

Other chambers to watch include the Colorado Senate, where Democrats have a one-seat majority and Republicans hope Rep. Cory Gardner's U. S. Senate bid will boost turnout; and the Nevada Senate, where -- says Las Vegas-based Citizen Outreach president Chuck Muth -- Democrats' one-seat majority will vanish if Republicans win all three competitive seats in play this November.

Of course, that’s not to suggest Republicans should start buying confetti. Patrick Gleason, head of state affairs for the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, said the GOP will also need to invest in protecting many of its victories from 2010, when Republicans netted 21 state legislative bodies (as a comparison, they netted one chamber, nationwide, in 2012).

“They’re going to be playing a lot of defense,” Gleason said, “and that’s just them being a victim of their own success.”

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