Note: This is one of four stories previewing the 2012 election in each of the nation's major regions. The complete series:
2012 State Legislative Election Preview: In the West, it’s Even-Steven on Election Eve
2012 State Legislative Election Preview: In the Northeast, Democrats go on Offense in Their Strongest Region
2012 State Legislative Election Preview: Democrats Trying to Claw Back in the Midwest
State Legislative Election Preview 2012: An Upside Down Solid South?
By Karl Kurtz
As a result of next week's election, it's (almost) conceivable that the "solid South," which historically refers to the Democratic party's unbroken hegemony over all southern state political offices from the 1880s through 1990, could return in the form of Republican control of all state legislatures in the region. What would it take to turn this pre-election map of southern state legislative control solidly red after the election?
- The only state that has had unbroken control of both chambers by Democrats since Reconstruction would have to switch to Republican control.
- We would have to recognize one tied southern legislative chamber that does not have an election this year as being under effective Republican control.
- Gov. Mitt Romney would have to have long coattails in two border states.
- We would have to move one state out of the region into the East.
OK, that last one involves a bit of trickery, but it's not legerdemain without justification. The Census Bureau, whose regional breakdowns we are using for this analysis, counts solidly Democratic Maryland as a southern state, but the Old Line State participates in the Council of State Government's Eastern Legislative Conference, not the Southern Legislative Conference. So a little redefinition of the region would erase that fingertip of blue in the northeast portion of the region. Maryland is one of five states in the region that has no election this year.
What are the other changes that would have to occur? First and foremost, Republicans would have to win control of the Arkansas House and Senate, which Democrats have controlled continuously since 1874. The Democrats' margin in the House is 53-46 (one vacancy) and in the Senate 20-15, so it would take only a small swing in seats to turn the Natural State blue. The prospect of this switch in party control has attracted a lot of outside political money, especially on the conservative side, but the redistricting map favors the Democrats. A month ago, veteran Arkansas reporter Max Brantley wrote:
Predictions? Got none. Going to be close. I've had consultants I respect on both sides insist their party will wind up with control. Republicans are buttressed at the outset by evidence that Arkansas is joining Dixie's red tide, enhanced by the proven anti-black-man vote here. It gives Republicans a generic edge in polling, which they now believe is solidly entrenched down the ballot.
The second condition—that we recognize that Republicans control the tied Virginia Senate through the casting vote of the Republican lieutenant governor—is easy to meet. We list the Senate as tied—and therefore the legislature as under split control—merely as a formality.
Third, the two border state legislatures that would require a huge Republican sweep to switch to GOP control are the Kentucky House and the West Virginia House and Senate. In Kentucky, Republicans would have to pick up 10 seats to gain control. Republicans are cautious but hopeful, as reported in Bluegrass Politics:
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover said Republicans are hungry, prepared and ready for a tough fight, but he stopped short of predicting that the GOP will win the 10 seats necessary to take control of the House. To do that, Republicans probably will need to win all four open seats that were held by Democrats, defend three open seats held by Republicans and defeat six incumbent Democrats. All Republican incumbents also must hold off challengers.
Imagining a Republican takeover in West Virginia is a big stretch, though, as Democrats hold a 65-35 margin over Republicans in the House and 28-6 in the Senate. Although Gov. Romney leads President Obama by 21 points in West Virginia polls, only 17 of the state Senate seats are up for election (Republicans would have to win 12) and Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is favored for reelection. Put West Virginia in the miracle category for Republicans.
To conclude, it seems likely that the southern map will turn redder as a result of this election, but a solid Republican South (minus Maryland) still seems one or two elections away.
Elsewhere in the region:
- In North Carolina, Republicans are running under new redistricting maps that they drew and are hopeful of picking up the five seats in the House that would give them a veto-proof majority in both chambers. The race for governor in North Carolina pitting Democrat Walter Dalton against Republican Lt. Gov. Pat McCrory is rated as likely Republican.
- The story from Tennessee is about the potential perils of Republicans gaining a super majority in both chambers of the General Assembly. This would require a net R gain of two seats in each chamber, an eventuality that both sides admit is possible.
- Going into the election, South Carolina Republicans hold a 76-48 margin over Democrats in the House and 27-19 in the Senate. Of the 170 legislative races in the state, 69 percent are uncontested. A recent study says that South Carolina has the least competition for legislative seats of any state in the country.
- In Florida, Democrats, who appear to be close to rock bottom holding only 28 of 120 seats in the House and 12 of 40 in the Senate, are hopeful that they may pick up a few seats because of a new redistricting process that required partisan-neutral line drawing.
- Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas all have overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers of their legislatures. Expect little change in the partisan balance in these three states.