When it rains, it pours.
Democratic leaders already braced for losses in November in congressional and gubernatorial races may be looking at grief on yet another front: A record number of state legislatures could change party control this year, with Democrats at risk of losing their majorities in more than 20 state chambers, according to a comprehensive analysis.
Electing state lawmakers will be especially important this year because the party that controls at least one chamber of the legislature typically wins a seat at the table - and a veto - in the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts after the 2010 census.
A survey by the Washington-based Governing magazine last week found that more chambers could change party hands in 2010 than in any other election cycle since at least 2002. Although more than 20 Democrat-controlled state chambers are in play, Republicans are in jeopardy of losing just four.
Other surveys show Republican gubernatorial candidates looking strong in many states, increasing the chance of a major shift in the balance of power in state-level politics heading into the 2012 presidential election.
The party in the White House usually loses seats at the state level in midterm elections.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the White House party has been a net loser of state legislative seats in every election in the past 110 years except 1934 and 2002, the first midterm elections of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush, respectively.
That dynamic, combined with voter concerns about the economy, federal spending and Democratic control of 55 percent of state seats means 2010 is “shaping up to be the worst election for Democrats since 1994,” said the NCSL’s Tim Storey.
Roughly 30 percent of state legislatures are considered in play. The number was similar in 2002, but recent history shows that the number of legislatures where control can flip from one party to the other increases as Election Day nears.
Democrats in the Indiana House of Representatives, for example, now cling to a 51-49 edge, while Republicans control the governor’s mansion and the state Senate. The Governing magazine analysis suggests the Hoosier State could be entirely in GOP hands come January.
Local Republicans have made winning seats a top legislative priority, said Indiana GOP spokesman Trevor Foughty.
He said Gov. Mitch Daniels set up a political action committee that began recruiting candidates about a year ago and that the party feels it can be competitive in 25 to 30 Democrat-held districts.
“It’s not just the [political] environment,” he said. “The number and quality of candidates makes for one of the best if not the best class we’ve ever had.”
Mr. Foughty also said the candidates will benefit from the governor’s approval rating, which polls show at 60 percent.
Beyond shaping the state’s legislative agenda, winning control of chambers is key because of the coming redrawing of congressional boundaries. In states projected to gain or lose U.S. House seats after the census numbers are compiled, the political battles over where to draw the new lines and which districts to consolidate can be brutal.
“The more chambers you have, the greater influence you’ll have in redrawing the map, though that’s not true in every state,” said Louis Jacobson, a Washington-based writer with PolitiFact and the St. Petersburg Times who compiled the Governing magazine survey.
Mr. Jacobson said in an interview that bipartisan commissions draw the lines in some states and governors often play a role alongside state legislators. “And, of course, some states have only one U.S. House seat,” he said.
The survey, he said, indicates that Republicans have a solid chance to end the Democrats’ control of the New Hampshire Senate and House of Representatives, listing the race for control in both as a tossup. Democrats now hold a 14-10 advantage in the Senate and a 222-176 advantage in the House.
Mike Burnelle, the state Democratic Party’s executive director, said he thinks his party will keep its majority and sees strength is its large number of incumbents.
“We have amazing candidates,” he said. “And New Hampshire is different. We’ve worked diligently on issues and are coming out of the recession much better than the rest of the country.”
The four chambers that Republicans risk losing are the Montana’s Senate, the Alaska House of Representatives, and both houses of the Tennessee legislature, according to the analysis.
Mr. Jacobson has conducted the analysis for five straight election cycles with impressive results.
“In the 2002, 2004 and 2006 cycles, only one chamber that I hadn’t rated as ‘in play’ came out of nowhere and flipped partisan control. In 2008, no chamber did that,” he said.