GOP dominance of state legislatures hangs in the balance on Election Day, as political analysts say the party’s presidential nominee’s turbulent campaign and erratic behavior could be toxic for some down-ballot Republican candidates in swing states.
Republicans hold majorities in 67 of the 98 state legislative chambers, the most in the party’s history, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). There are 30 states in which Republicans control both legislative chambers. Among those states, 22 have Republican governors.
Democrats, meanwhile, control both legislative chambers in 12 states.
Republican lawmakers have used those dominant majorities to pass a litany of policies designed to cut taxes, slash state budgets, weaken unions and workers’ rights, implement voter restrictions, and chip away at access to abortion care. State-level legislators, as of June, had introduced 445 measures designed to restrict abortion access in 2016; 17 states had passed 46 anti-choice laws.
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Thirty percent of all abortion restrictions that have passed since the landmark Roe v. Wade 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision have come since GOP lawmakers swept into power in 2010.
Analysts who track state-level politics and electoral trends say 2016 could mark a turning point in the hold Republicans have on legislatures nationwide.
Tim Storey, elections analyst for NCSL, told the Wall Street Journal that a combination of factors have contributed to Democrats potentially regaining control of some state legislatures that were captured by Republicans in recent years.
“It’s really a year of opportunity for the Democrats, given the success Republicans have had in the last several election cycles,” Storey said. “Republicans have pushed about as far as they can get.”
Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, told the Wall Street Journal that it will be a challenge for the party to defend historic gains. “When you are at a number that you have never before hit in history, you naturally have more ground to defend,” Walter said.
There are 18 legislative chambers in 13 states that could switch party control in November, according to NCSL. Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin could all see the party in control change in at least one legislative chamber.
While Republicans acknowledge the challenge of defending their state legislative majorities, some are downplaying the effect that GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump may have on down-ballot campaigns.
Trump has responded to the bipartisan condemnation of his behavior by lashing out at Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, the Republican establishment, and the media. He’s made repeated claims that he is the victim of a global conspiracy.
Storey told Governing that the presidential campaign is the most significant factor in determining the results of state-level elections. “The top of the ticket really matters,” Storey said.
Reproductive rights advocates are seizing the possible opportunity to shift the balance of power in a handful of states. They are supporting candidates they hope will be part of pro-choice legislative majorities that will defend and bolster access to abortion care, among other policies.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, a reproductive rights advocacy organization, launched a campaign that targeted what the organization identified as pivotal state legislative seats in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington.
Joel Foster, national political director of NARAL, said in a statement that the organization is looking to build upon the strides that the movement has made. In Colorado, for example, pro-choice legislators have been able to defeat anti-abortion legislation but have been blocked from passing laws to further reproductive care. Political observers have noted that Trump’s candidacy could have a negative effect on at least one Republican state senate candidate there.
“State legislatures are on the front lines in the fight for reproductive freedom so NARAL’s strategic investments in key states will help to build long-term power for the reproductive freedom movement,” Foster said.
Clinton is favored to win each of the states that NARAL has targeted, according to election forecasts by data analysis site FiveThirtyEight.
James Owens, states communications director for NARAL, told Rewire that the organization endorsed 33 candidates as part of a strategy that includes paid advertising, mail, and investments in field operations in state legislative districts, many of which are within competitive campaigns for the U.S. House and Senate.
“We saw early on that there were these key races around the country on the state level that overlapped with competitive House, Senate, sometimes governor, and sometimes presidential races,” Owens said. “These key races could determine control of a legislature, potentially flip a few legislatures while also driving pro-choice turnout up and down the ballot.”
There is a chance that both chambers of the Colorado and Washington legislatures could see the political party in the majority flipped on Election Day, according to an analysis by NCSL. Democrats have majorities in the house while Republicans have majorities in the senate in both states. An across-the-board change could also happen in Nevada, where Republicans have majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
While the states that NARAL has targeted are not where the most prodigious legislative attacks on reproductive rights have occurred, Owens said the organization has committed resources to states where they aim to build pro-choice majorities.
“We are looking for opportunities where we can go on offense,” Owens said. “Where you can take the momentum from kind of a cultural moment where people are tired of politicians who put down women and belittle their interests. You can use this newfound political momentum to start talking about not just how you defend abortion rights, but how … you expand access.”
EMILY’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic women candidates, has also targeted state legislatures where Democrats are in a position to make gains. The group has raised more than $3.5 million and spent more than $24.1 million during the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.