by editor | 28th October 2010 6:34 am
Elections for governorships and state legislatures could affect America as much as the more famous mid-term battle for Congress
IF THE amount spent on an election campaign is any measure of its significance, then the three most important races in the mid-term elections are for governorships—those of California, Florida and Texas. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which tracks fund-raising for state-level races, the candidates for governor in California alone have raised almost $170m, not counting spending by third parties trying to influence the outcome. The tally for the most expensive congressional race, in contrast, is a mere $32m, for Florida’s open Senate seat.
The battle for Congress tends to dominate mid-term election coverage, especially in years like this one, when control of both chambers is in doubt. But on November 2nd American voters, in addition to choosing a fresh batch of representatives and senators, will award 37 governorships and 6,118 seats in state legislatures, along with many other state and local offices.
Those races are just as finely balanced as the congressional ones: 23 legislative chambers are within five seats of changing hands, while RealClearPolitics, a website, currently projects that 19 governorships will switch from one party to the other. This upheaval, Republican and Democratic strategists agree, will continue to shape national politics long after the two-year term of the next Congress has ended.
The governors and state legislatures elected next month will determine how states overcome the gaping shortfall in revenue most face in the coming years. In the process they are likely to pioneer policies that will later be adopted at the national level. Many of the most successful reformers, in turn, will move on to federal offices, much as Barack Obama ascended from state senator to senator to president. In many states the new crop of legislators will also have a more immediate impact on national politics, first by redrawing congressional districts to account for shifts in population over the past ten years, and then by putting their successful electoral machinery at the disposal of their party’s presidential candidate in 2012.
In the states as at the national level, the outlook for Democrats is grim this year. The Republicans claim that they are poised to seize control of at least six legislative chambers from the Democrats, and possibly as many as 17. They are also projected to make a net gain of at least five governorships. In part, this will simply reverse the Democrats’ success in recent elections, winning governorships or state legislatures in usually reliably Republican states such as Wyoming and Indiana.
But it also reflects a swing against the Democrats in their heartland. In no fewer than 11 states that plumped for Mr Obama in 2008, Republicans hope to win over legislative chambers. They see the big industrial states bordering the Great Lakes as particularly promising territory: they are aiming for “red sweeps” in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, meaning control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship. All of those states were won by Mr Obama in 2008, and all of them are these days considered to be swing states in presidential elections, so the results there will doubtless be watched with particular fascination in the White House.
It is not unremitting gloom for the Democrats, however. Their candidates for governor in California and Florida both hold narrow leads in the polls, despite the prodigality of their millionaire opponents. Other potential pick-ups include Hawaii, Minnesota and Connecticut. Some party activists see a chance of winning a majority in Texas?s House of Representatives, although Republicans insist that prospect is receding along with the hopes of the Democrats’ candidate for governor, Bill White.
Democrats would be particularly cheered by victories in Florida and Texas, as they would thereby earn a say in redistricting in two big and fast-growing states where congressional boundaries are currently drawn in Republicans’ favour. By the same token, red sweeps in states that are likely to lose seats, such as Ohio and Michigan, would allow the Republicans to ensure that the burden falls squarely on Democratic incumbents. REDMAP, a Republican outfit that targets state-level races because of their significance for redistricting, reckons that the party could create as many as 25 additional safe Republican seats—including five in Ohio alone—if it wins control of the right legislatures and governorships.
The main duty of the new legislatures and governors, however, will be to balance the states’ budgets. Until now, the federal government’s fiscal stimulus has helped to paper over states? deficits with one-off handouts. But most of that will end next year, leaving states with an even bigger hole to fill than they have faced this year or last: $134 billion according to the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think-tank. Since almost all states are prohibited by law from running deficits, the result will be either drastic spending cuts or big tax increases. On the whole, Republicans favour spending cuts, whereas Democrats are more inclined to preserve services, even if it means higher taxes.
Inevitably, the federal government will end up mimicking the policies of the states that cope best with such difficulties, one of the great strengths of a system in which 50 states are able to experiment and compete on policies. At any rate, that is what happened in the 1990s, when the feds adopted reforms to welfare benefits first tested in Wisconsin, and in the past decade, when it followed California’s lead in overhauling car-emissions standards. Moreover, many of the most successful legislators and governors will move on to federal politics in time. Five of the past six presidents, for example, held state office earlier in their careers; four of them (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush junior) had served as governor. By the same token, many candidates for the House of Representatives have previously served in state houses; many governors and senators have previously held other statewide offices such as attorney-general, secretary of state, lieutenant-governor and so forth. Local politics may be in thrall to national trends this year, but for much of the time, the reverse is true.
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