- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2014

Republicans hope to ride President Obama’s unpopularity to win control of the U.S. Senate, but they also say they’re laying the groundwork for gains in the states’ legislatures, where analysts say Democrats are also on the defensive.

“We’re extremely optimistic that this is the kind of environment [where] we can have a net pickup of chambers,” said Matt Walter, chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC).

In the first quarter alone, the fundraising arm of the RSLC raised more than $2.5 million, compared to more than $1.2 million for its counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). Numbers for the period covering April, May and June were not immediately available for either group, but Mr. Walter said the RSLC posted its best second quarter ever.

Republicans currently hold 60 legislative chambers across the country, thanks in large part to their performance four years ago, when they flipped 20 chambers across the country in a historic romp.

Louis Jacobson, who handicaps state-level races as a contributor to Governing Magazine, says there are just 17 total chambers in the entire country that are in play — far fewer than in 2010 or 2012. Of those 17, 11 are held by Democrats and six by Republicans.

“If you look at the numbers, the GOP is at or near historic highs,” he said. “They took control in 2010 and shored themselves up in time for the 2012 elections.”

All told, there were 3,836 Republican members of state legislatures compared to 3,448 Democrats as of June 9, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The GOP is playing offense in the race for control of the U.S. Senate due in part to Mr. Obama’s own strong performance in 2008, when many Democrats rode his coattails into office and are now running their first re-election campaigns in a much tougher environment.

At the state level, meanwhile, Republicans’ long-term ability to make inroads in Southern areas long represented by conservative Democrats, and their more recent solidifying of majorities in such key Midwestern states as Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, now lets them reach into newer territory, according to Mr. Jacobson.

The DLCC recently rolled its own list of 17 targeted state chambers it considers “in play” this year, which includes the House and the Senate in Michigan and Wisconsin and the Pennsylvania Senate.

Michael Gronstal, the Senate majority leader in Iowa and board chairman for the DLCC, said on a recent press call that he’s “incredibly excited” about Democrats’ opportunities this cycle, but he was also careful not to predict victory.

“We’re not going to start putting out a list of places we’re going to win, but we do think we have [a] great opportunity to pick up seats across the country,” Mr. Gronstal said.

Mr. Jacobson said he doesn’t foresee any major down-ballot coattail effect in states with competitive gubernatorial races. But he did say Pennsylvania, where incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett trails Democrat Tom Wolf by more than 21 points in the latest RealClearPolitics average, could be one state that’s a potential danger for the GOP.

Republicans hold a 111-92 advantage in the state House there, but only a 27-23 advantage in the Senate.

“All the polling indicates that [Corbett’s] having a pull effect on his Republican candidates in Senate races across the commonwealth, especially in our targeted districts,” said Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents part of Philadelphia.

Mr. Walter acknowledged that his group would likely have to spend some money in order to shore up their majorities in states like Pennsylvania but said they are in position to go on offense in such Western states as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

Mr. Walter said that the RSLC put in a significant amount of effort into redistricting during the 2010 cycle, which helped Republicans minimize their losses in the U.S. House in 2012 and lock in friendlier districts that won’t change until after the 2020 census.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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