Seven State-Level Races to Watch

Quick—who's your state legislator? If you're like most people, you have no idea. (If you do know, well la-dee-da!)

State legislative races don't usually get much attention, and in a big presidential year, they're lucky to get any. But who runs the legislature is crucial in setting policy. Two years ago, when Tea Party fervor swept across the nation, Republicans knocked Democrats out of power in 21 state House and Senate chambers. Twenty states had Republicans in charge of the Senate, House, and governor's mansion concurrently. The impact was swift. These new majorities slashed social programs and weakened reproductive rights. They passed new voter-ID laws and anti-union measures. 

This year the stakes are just as high—if not higher. As I wrote in a September column:

States’ refusal to expand Medicaid could derail Obama’s health-care plan. Anti-immigration laws will continue to proliferate in the states while Congress hems and haws about comprehensive reform. Republican lawmakers will continue to push for charter schools and private-school vouchers at the cost of traditional public education. Fights over civil-rights issues like gay marriage and voting rights, not to mention women’s rights, will play out almost entirely in the halls of state capitols.

This go-around, Democrats are hoping to take back some of the chambers lost last time. After all, many of the drastic decisions the GOP majorities made were wildly unpopular, and in many states, the current lawmakers are more conservative than the general population, giving Democrats a nice way of framing the choice for voters.

But it's going to be a tough battle—2012 was a census year, meaning just about every state had to redraw district lines. For those states that don't have a bipartisan commission, the honor of "redistricting" falls to the majority party, which inevitably tries to give itself the most favorable maps possible. This year, many Democratic candidates are running in districts designed to help Republicans. Equally difficult, Democrats are playing defense in 8 of the 11 gubernatorial races this election. There are also millions coming in from groups like the Republican Governors Association and the Republican State Leadership Committee, and to a lesser extent, their Democratic counterparts, as well as Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity and other outside groups.

With so many states to watch, it's hard to know where best to look for exciting state election action. But never fear! Here's our top list of the tightest races with the highest stakes:

Arkansas House and Senate

It’s sort of shocking for most people to discover that Arkansas remains a blue state—at least where state politics are concerned. Its legislative chambers are the last Democratic outpost in Dixieland, and Republicans are hoping this is the year things flip. Obama is wildly unpopular in the state, and that will likely cast a shadow on the Democrats down the ballot. Currently, Democrats hold 20 of the 35 Senate seats and a narrow majority of 54 seats in the 100-member House. The Koch brothers, among others, have invested heavily in the state races, trying to ensure a flip.

But Arkansas is in an interesting position. As a recent piece in The New Republic points out, the state’s governors have been nuanced and bipartisan in their approach. Former Republican Governor Mike Huckabee, now a national personality, invested in education while his predecessor, Democrat Mike Beebe, cut taxes.

The current GOP of the state is an altogether different animal, toeing the party line: drastic cuts, privatization, and voter-ID laws. While state voters prefer generic Republicans by a large margin (49 percent to 36 percent according to one September poll), state Democrats are hoping when it comes to the district-to-district races, they’ll be able to lure voters away from the national Republican brand.


Maine House and Senate

The midterm election was bitter for Maine Democrats.  In the last days before the vote, the Republican State Leadership Committee swooped in on five different state Senate races, quadrupling what the Republican campaigns had already spent. But the RSLC did not file expenditure reports on the $400,000 it spent—meaning the Democratic candidates did not receive the matching funds state law allows. While the group was later hit with the largest fine in state history, it was well worth it—Republicans took control of the state Senate and House. With the help of Tea Party Governor Paul LePage, also elected that year, the Republicans proceeded to slash and burn much of the state’s domestic policy.

Many expect Democrats will retake the chambers this year. The Republican agenda has been unpopular in the state; in a late September poll, 51 percent of voters said they’d vote for Democratic candidates over Republican. The state is solidly Democratic when it comes to the presidential race, and a ballot measure to allow gay marriage appears likely to pass. Both factors should help drive more Democrats to the polls.


Minnesota House and Senate

This year, many Minnesota voters will turn out as much to vote for questions at the end of the ballot as for those at the top. That’s because there are two contentious measures to be decided: Whether to ban gay marriage and whether to enact a state voter-ID law. While the state voter-ID law will likely pass, it’s the gay-marriage amendment that falls along party lines—and is currently too close to call.

Both questions have drawn tremendous amounts of money and attention in the state, and they may help determine which party rules the state’s House and Senate. While House and Senate candidates have raised less than a $1.5 million all together, these ballot measures have collected a total of $4.7 million. The Republicans hold 72 seats in the House to the Democrats’ 61. (There’s also one independent.) In the Senate, the margin is even smaller: Republicans have 37 seats while the Democrats have 30. Meanwhile, the state's new redistricting maps, drawn by courts after the Democratic governor twice vetoed Republican plans, may give Dems more of an advantage this year. This one may be a nail-biter.


Montana Governor’s Race

This is one of the most fiercely competitive races in the country, and most polls show it's too close to call. Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock faces Republican Representative Rick Hill. This is a race Democrats must win to hold their ground; current Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer remains popular in the state but can’t run again due to term limits. Neither candidate is an extremist. Hill has pushed for cutting back regulations and using more of the state’s natural resources but also for increasing education funding. Bullock has made small businesses the center of his campaign, with plans to cut their taxes and offer more grants for start-ups.

The race saw an unexpected twist when a $500,000 contribution from the state GOP to Hill was frozen and came under legal review. The donation, which turns out to be from the Republican Governors’ Association, is still in court and has forced Hill to pull advertising in the week before Election Day. This being Montana, Hill has only raised a total of $1.9 million (including the contentious $500,000), while Bullock has raised $1.7 million.


New Hampshire Governor’s Race

New Hampshire is known for its idiosyncratic politics, and this year’s gubernatorial race is no different. Current Democratic Governor John Lynch is retiring, and former Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan is aiming to continue the Democratic reign. Standing in her way is Republican Ovide LaMontagne, an attorney who’s already run, unsuccessfully, for governor before as well as for the U.S. Senate.

This year might be his year, however. Polls have the two standing neck-and-neck, and the Republican Governor’s Association just went in big, buying $6 million in ads for Lamontagne. That’s huge money in a race like this; Lamontagne has raised $1.2 million compared with Hassan’s $1 million. However, Hassan still has a commanding lead among women in the state, and the latest poll shows her with a four-point lead. Presidential politics may tip the scales—a Romney or Obama victory may well determine who gets to be governor.


Washington Governor’s Race

If state Attorney General Rob McKenna successfully wins his bid to be the governor of Washington, he’ll be the first Republican to do so in nearly 30 years. That is indeed what many GOP supporters are hoping. But the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative Jay Inslee, has held his own in the race to replace Christine Gregoire, the current Democratic governor. The fight illustrates some of the more interesting nuances of state-level politics. Inslee is hardly a Tea Party candidate—while McKenna is pushing for more clean energy, Inslee’s campaign has focused on increasing education funding.

This race has seen record-breaking spending; both candidates have raised nearly $9 million, with Inslee slightly ahead. Still, the money hasn’t brought either candidate a clear lead—polling has been within the margin of error and most pundits consider the race a toss-up.


Wisconsin Senate

When Democrats lost the Wisconsin recall this summer—in a decisive fashion—they had only one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day: They’d successfully taken back the state Senate. The one senatorial recall victory was enough to flip control of the chamber, and currently Democrats have a slim two-vote majority with one vacancy.

But their control may be short-lived. The state legislature had already gaveled out of session, and more important, had already redrawn the district lines to hurt Democratic incumbents. The new districts will be tough for Democrats to hold. But dollars from the presidential race have flown into the state, and national efforts to ensure high turnout may also help down-ballot Democrats to get more votes. Then again, if Romney can find a way to eke out a victory in the state, it may also mean an even bleaker outlook for down-ballot Democrats.

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