2014 is an election year and the stakes are high, especially in the Midwest. In this guest posting, Robin A. Johnson outlines the races and what they will do to the political balance in the region. Johnson is an adjunct professor of political science at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and a political consultant who has worked on dozens of campaigns at the federal, state and local levels in the Midwest.
This year is shaping up to be a critical year for the balance of power in Washington with major implications for the Midwest. Only months into President Obama’s second term, pundits and strategists are already handicapping the 2014 election cycle and selecting key races that could give either party control over both houses of Congress.
If the Democrats hold the Senate and gain control of the House, it would provide momentum for Obama’s agenda and ease the way for immigration reform, passage of a farm bill and climate change legislation. If Republicans maintain control of the House and pick up enough seats to control the Senate, it would ensure legislative stalemate, continue focus on Obamacare’s struggles, and set the stage for a GOP takeover of the White House in 2016.
But an often overlooked element of political control in Washington will occur in the states. In the Midwest, most gubernatorial seats will be up for election and hundreds of legislative offices will also be determined. While the media will often examine governors’ races and handicap the results, legislative races are mostly ignored. Minority control of one house of a state legislature can bottle up policy, but also impact redistricting when the reapportionment process takes place in 2020.
Republicans currently occupy the Governor’s offices in nine of the 12 states in the region and have total control of both the executive and both houses of the legislative branch in eight out of 12 states.
It’s not too early to begin looking at the next decennial process of reapportionment. Republicans caught the Democrats napping and invested significant resources in targeted races in 2010 that overturned Democratic control of legislative bodies in several Midwestern states. The GOP was then able to control the redistricting process which produced dramatic changes in the partisan makeup of the U.S. House and state legislative bodies.
For example, Republicans went from holding 45% of U.S. House seats in the Midwest region in 2010 to 63% after reapportionment. Democrats went from having a majority of U.S. House seats in nine of the 12 Midwestern states in 2010 to just two states in 2012, with one state tied. (Note: Iowa is the only state in the region where a nonpartisan commission, rather than elected officials, draws district lines).
In 11 Midwestern states (Nebraska’s state legislators run on a nonpartisan basis and their results are not included), the number of Republican State Senate seats increased by 58 and the number of Republican State House seats increased by 154 between 2010 and 2012. Democrats went from controlling at least one house in seven of the 11 states in 2009 to just two states after reapportionment. Even in the deep red Dakotas, the State Senates were competitive prior to reapportionment with Republican majorities of five in North Dakota and seven in South Dakota.
In some individual states, the results from 2010 were staggering:
- In blue-state Minnesota, Democrats lost 25 seats in the House and 16 seats in the Senate, losing control of both houses.
- In the Ohio House of Representatives, Democrats went from a 53-46 majority to a 59-40 minority, a loss of 13 seats.
- In the Indiana House of Representatives, Democrats went from a 52-48 majority to a 60-40 minority, a loss of 12 seats.
- In Iowa, Democrats lost 16 House seats and control of that body.
Illinois was the outlier. While Democrats lost a handful of seats in each chamber in 2010, it still maintained an 11-seat margin in the Senate and 10-seat margin in the House.
The only other state where Democrats maintained control of a legislative body was Iowa, where the Republicans gained six seats but Democrats still had a two-seat majority in the State Senate.
Since 2010, Democrats have made little progress in wresting control back from the GOP. In 2012, Minnesota Democrats won both chambers back after losing both in 2010. The Wisconsin Senate was the battleground for high-profile recall elections in 2011 but Republicans currently have a three-vote margin. Democrats made slight gains in 2012 in the Iowa and Michigan Houses, the Missouri Senate and won back seats in both Houses in Illinois.
On paper, the Democrats would appear to have an edge in winning back legislative seats. Obama carried six of the 12 Midwestern states, including Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, which have complete Republican control at the state level. But the opportunities for making significant inroads appear to be limited because of the Republican skill at drawing uncompetitive districts.
Barring a major Democratic wave in 2014, which appears increasingly unlikely due to President Obama’s declining popularity and the continuing problems of Obamacare, the Republicans are likely to maintain control of most legislative bodies in the Midwest. Democrats are in striking distance in only a few states.
- In Wisconsin, Democrats have a shot at taking control of the State Senate.
- In the House of Representatives in Iowa and Michigan, Republicans maintain majorities of six and eight seats respectively, giving them a tenuous hold and giving Democrats a reasonable chance of flipping control.
Republicans’ best chance of reversing Democratic control is in the Iowa Senate, where they need to pick up just two seats to gain an outright majority.
The stakes are high. Republicans control the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature in all Midwestern states except Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. For Democrats, the key is to be able to chip away at Republican majorities in the 2014 cycle to put them in a position of being able to take control back in 2020 before the next Census.
But it won’t be easy. The Republicans are playing on their home turf in most districts and will likely have ample resources. And Democrats face stiff national headwinds with the president’s declining position, uneven economic conditions and a lack of top tier candidates running for Governor in many key states.
At this point, the best guess is that Republicans will maintain overall control in most Midwestern states in this latest round of the battle for political supremacy in the Heartland.
Robin A. Johnson is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois.