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 Tim Storey
The outlook for legislative elections in the West is perhaps the most intriguing of any region because more states fall into the "battleground" category than in any other part of the country. It's the most evenly divided region in the country. And in the states where party control is not up for grabs, it will still be worth watching to see if veto-proof majorities can be obtained…or thwarted.
The West is dead even in chamber control--12 chambers in Democratic hands and 12 in the GOP column. Two chambers, the Alaska Senate and the Oregon House, are tied. Republicans have an edge in overall seats (712 R to 594 D), courtesy of sizable majorities in three of the most Republican legislatures in the country: Wyoming (the nation's most Republican legislature), Utah and Idaho.
Let's start with Alaska where there are currently 10 Democratic Senators and 10 Republicans in what is the nation's smallest state legislative body (although with the largest geographical districts including one that is about the size of Texas). The Frontier State Senate is currently run by a coalition of the 10 Ds and six Republicans who elected Republican Senator Gary Stevens to lead the body. Two of the six coalition Republicans were targeted and lost GOP primaries, so Democrats need to hold serve on their seats if they want to see the coalition continue. And that may be tough given a redistricting map that put several Democratic senators in much tougher districts. There is also a "coalition-busting" independent running, so this will be one to watch. In the Alaska House, Republicans will likely maintain their narrow 22-18 lead.
In the region's other tied chamber, the Oregon House, both parties are optimistic that they can win an outright majority and break the 30-30 tie that has existed for the past two years. The challenge is a bit tougher for Republicans with President Barack Obama projected to win the state, but most polls show the president falling well short of his 2008 margin. Control of the Oregon House will probably be determined in seven suburban Portland districts. The Oregon Senate is also a toss-up and could also wind up tied after this election. Currently, Democrats control the Senate with a 16-14 majority. If Republicans manage to pick up one seat in the Senate—a real possibility—Oregon would become the first state since at least 1900 to have both chambers of the legislature tied at the same time.
Another closely divided state is Colorado where the Senate margin is only five seats (20 D – 15 R) and the House is one (32 D – 33 R). Republicans have an uphill climb to win the Colorado Senate this year although they may have a better chance in 2014 when term limits open up more possibilities. Control of the House is likely come down to two or three very close, high-spending races in the Denver suburbs.
In Nevada, Democratic control of the legislature will likely come down to one key Senate race that has seen some big spending. There are five competitive races, but the consensus is that the "big kahuna" is Reno's district 18 where, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "Republican Greg Brower has raised $621,542 and spent $531,182, compared with Democrat Sheila Leslie's $435,900 in contributions and $447,026 in expenditures." Democrats enter the election with a one seat advantage 11-10, and 12 seats are up this year. Democrats start with a ten seat advantage in the House, so Nevada House Republicans have a tougher hill to climb. They are optimistic that they can parlay a fundraising advantage into a few additional seats.
The one thing certain about the Washington Legislature is that we are not likely to know who controls the state Senate in Olympia until several days after the election. Democrats have a narrow 27 D – 22 R lead headed into the election. Washington is the only state in the country that has all mail-in voting and requires only that ballots be post-marked on election day. (Oregon also has all vote-by-mail, but voters there must submit completed ballots by election day.) Democrats are likely to hold on to the Washington Senate (and the House), but it will take days to confirm it.
In New Mexico Democrats have controlled both chambers for over two decades since winning back the Senate in 1988. However, the numbers in the House are close (36 D – 33 R and 1 Ind.), and a new map gives Republicans their best shot since the last redistricting to make gains.
California voters are almost certain to continue Democratic dominance of the Legislature. Democrats have controlled both chambers for all but one election since 1974, so not much drama there…right? Not so, because if Democrats can gain two seats in the Senate and hold their substantial Assembly majority, they will have a coveted two-thirds majority and be able to pass tax and fee increases without any Republican votes. With a new commission-drawn redistricting map injecting some uncertainty into the equation, the Democrats may get to 2/3rds and be veto-proof.
In Arizona, Democrats have been on the ropes for several years in the legislature and especially in the past two years when Republicans have held supermajorities in both chambers. A new, commission-drawn redistricting plan has given Democrats hope that they will be able to add seats and have a greater say in the coming biennium.
Don't expect major change in the region's remaining states, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming where control is lopsided. In Hawaii, Republicans could add one seat in the Senate and double their caucus. Senator Sam Slom is currently the chamber's only Republican making his the smallest party caucus in the nation. In Utah an interesting, and unpredictable leadership battle is taking shape in the Senate where Republican Senate President Michael Waddoups is retiring. In the Utah House, GOP House Speaker Becky Lockhart announced that she would retire from the legislature in 2014, so this will be her last term as speaker.