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
Democrats arguably suffered their biggest losses in the 2010 election in the state legislatures of the Midwest. In that election Republicans captured both chambers in Minnesota and Wisconsin and they took control of the houses in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio. In 2012, Democrats hope to recapture at least some of that lost ground. The most important battlegrounds are the Minnesota House and Senate, the Iowa and Wisconsin senates and the Michigan House.
In Minnesota, Republicans captured the House and the Senate from the Democrats in 2010 and hold a 72-62 edge in the House and a 37-29 advantage in the Senate. Democrats would need a net gain of six in the House and five in the Senate to regain control. Democrats have raised $8 million for legislative races compared to $1 million for the GOP and have much of it left to spend in the last week of the campaign according to Minnesota Public Radio. DFL party chair Ken Martin is counting on a combination of this funding advantage, redistricting and demographic changes, and public reaction to the extreme swing of the last election to regain control of the Legislature. But as Republican party chair Pat Shortridge points out, "It's not a fundraising contest, it's an election."
The Wisconsin Senate is a special case. Republicans gained a net of four seats in 2010 to take control with a margin of 19-14. However, in the course of a series of recall elections in the last year after an epic battle over collective bargaining, Democrats had a net gain of three seats and regained the majority, 17-15 (one vacancy), in June 2012. Most of the closely contested seats in the 2012 election are held by Democrats. Democrats are not conceding anything, but many observers think that the Republicans are likely to regain the majority. The Assembly, with a 58-38 Republican majority, is not in play. Referring to the famous flight of Wisconsin senators to Illinois to prevent the passage of collective bargaining legislative in 2011, reporter Ryan Ekvall says that Democratic Assembly mambers "...might have a better chance of stopping legislation from Illinois hotel rooms than flipping the 10 seats needed to turn the lower chamber blue."
The Iowa Senate has a high stakes election in 2012 as Republicans, led by Gov. Terry Branstad, hope to add the Senate to a stable that already contains the House and the governorship. Democrats are playing defense. From the Des Moines Register:
Senate Democrats currently have 26 seats, while the GOP has 24 seats. Senate Republican Leader Jerry Behn of Boone said he is “extremely optimistic” his party will win control on Nov. 6, and predicts his caucus could hold up to 30 seats when the Legislature convenes in January....
But Democratic Leader Michael Gronstal of Council Bluffs said he feels the odds are good his party can retain a majority with at least 26 seats and perhaps pick up one or two more.
With a Senate made up of an even number of members and a very close election, a tie is a distinct possibility in Iowa. And since there is one vacancy in the Senate (due to a death that occurred after the Des Moines Register story was written) that will not be filled until a Dec. 11 special election, we may not know for several weeks which party controls the Senate. Republicans are expected to maintain control of the Iowa House, where they currently hold a 58-40 (two vacancies) majority.
In Michigan, the Detroit News reports:
Democrats are pinning their hopes of reclaiming control of the state House on strong turnout for President Barack Obama, labor union ballot issues and an election rigging scandal dogging Speaker Jase Bolger.
The minority party needs to maintain its 46 seats and win 10 more to get back in power after Republicans took the state House in a 2010 electoral sweep that gave the GOP total control of government.
Democrats are campaigning hard in 20 of the 110 House districts. Ideally, they need Obama to defeat Republican Mitt Romney in Michigan with a commanding 54 percent of the vote to capture the minimum 56 seats needed to win the majority, said pollster Ed Sarpolus of the Lansing firm Target Insyght.
The Real Clear Politics polling average for Michigan currently has Pres. Obama ahead 49-46 percent, suggesting that it would be a tall order for Democrats to take over the Michigan House, assuming that Democratic consultant Sarpolus' formulation is correct. The Michigan Senate is not up for election in 2012.
After a bloody Republican Senate primary in Kansas this summer in which conservative Republicans, led by Gov. Sam Brownback, successfully challenged eight incumbent moderate Republicans who had controlled the Senate and blocked some of the governor's initiatives, the fall campaign is all about the governor. According to the Topeka Capitol Journal,
Democrats have attempted to make legislative contests a referendum on the conservative governor, massive income tax cuts he signed into law earlier this year and resulting forecasts of future budget problems. Brownback’s allies are looking to win commanding majorities for GOP conservatives.
The GOP right is all but certain to control both chambers after this year’s elections, but conservatives are hoping for a two-thirds majority in the Senate that would make it easier for them to pursue changes in the Kansas Constitution on such topics as health care and the selection of appellate court judges.
The political calculus is straightforward heading into the Nov. 6 election. If Republicans retain or expand their majorities — 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House — conservatives would be in control. If Democrats pick up seats, there is a better chance that they and a dwindling band of GOP moderates still can check some of Brownback’s ambitions.
In the remaining states of the region, Republicans hold overwhelming margins in both chambers in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio and South Dakota, and Democrats are in firm control in Illinois. Expect only marginal changes in political lineup in these states. The Nebraska Senate is nonpartisan.