States in the Spotlight
The GOP is hurting in New York, where Democrats have been slowly picking up Republican seats for several cycles. But the state party had a particularly rough Election Day this year. The number of Republican U.S. representatives dropped to three out of 29, and Democrats gained control of the state Senate, which Republicans had held since the 1960s.
The state is now “so blue you can throw away the crayons,” says Mickey Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Looking ahead, the Republicans’ biggest headache is 2010 redistricting, which will affect New York at all levels. With the Democrats controlling every branch of government, there will be no Republican hands helping to draw the new boundaries. “When they sit down and start putting lines through the computer, you may not have any more Republican districts,” Carroll says. “Some political scientists say it’s the Massachusettsization of New York. It will be a blood bath.”
There have been rumors of inviting a nonpartisan group to draw the boundaries, but this is unlikely since the Republicans have been gerrymandering the lines since they gained control in the 1960s. The Democrats see this as their turn, and they’ve got the legislative numbers to prove it. “The game is up no matter what,” says Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York. “Even if they change the redistricting system to a nonpartisan legislation so the Democrats don’t have total control, Democrats will still retain the majority.”
But even without new district lines, the GOP’s long-term prospects in New York look dim. Democratic registration has risen statewide. Even areas outside New York City that have been Republican for decades are turning blue. “Besides Peter King in Long Island, who is hanging out as the lone Republican, the downstate Republican parts are comatose on life support,” Muzzio says. “It’s as close to being dead as it can be without the doctor doing an autopsy.”
So how can the state GOP resurrect itself? Carroll believes the party needs a new central figure, perhaps former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani or 2006 gubernatorial candidate John Faso. Others say it goes well beyond a single leader. “They clearly need better candidates and a more forward-looking party,” Muzzio says. “It’s an old white man’s party. These geriatric white guys are literally dinosaurs. They’ve got to run younger, more ethnically, racially and gender diverse candidates.”
Erik Iverson got elected Montana’s GOP chairman by promising to win the state legislature. The odds were against him—Democrats were projected to take a four-seat majority in the House and already held a two-seat lead in the Senate. But Iverson had two new rules. First, no more statewide newspaper ads. Second, no more spending money on Republican candidates across the board.
Instead, he narrowed the field using the Average Republican Voter Strength scale. “If the average [projection of support] wasn’t 45 to 55 percent, we weren’t going to spend any money on that race,” Iverson says. “Based off that, we created a list of 21 seats in the House and Senate we thought we could win. We didn’t put money in any other races.”
That money went to direct mail pieces, polling, radio ads and robocalls, all customized for each district. “We tried to run each race like a congressional race,” Iverson says. “We couldn’t match the Obama operation dollar for dollar, so we knew we needed to spend our dollar smarter.”
This approach had never been attempted by Montana Republicans, and it didn’t come cheap. According to Iverson, supporting Republican candidates across the state cost $165,000 in 2006. This year, 21 races cost $750,000. In the end, most of that money filtered down to five Republican-leaning districts.
The race for state Senate District 22, just outside Billings, was especially fierce. Republican Taylor Brown went up against Democratic incumbent Lane Larson in one of the most expensive races in Montana’s history. “Between what the campaigns and parties spent, $160,000 to $170,000 was spent on just that race,” Iverson says.
While the Democrats spent their money late on lots of TV ads, the Republicans released a steady stream of mail pieces and radio ads for months before the election. On Election Day, Iverson won 16 of the 21 seats he’d targeted, including District 22. Republicans went from being down by two in the state Senate to holding a two-seat majority. “Montana’s GOP was a lot of help,” Brown says. “It was instrumental in my success, as I think any of the others who were successful this year would tell you.”
Now, as the new state Senate majority plans to reduce taxes and increase job growth, Iverson is hoping this red legislature is the start of something much bigger. “We didn’t have much of a bench,” Iverson says, “but now we do, and they’re going to be able to go for statewide office in four years.”
Tennessee bucked the national trend this cycle by creating a Republican majority in its House of Representatives. The last time that happened was 1865. “This is the first time since Reconstruction, when the Whig Republicans controlled the House,” says state Rep. Jason Mumpower, who will become majority leader. He says his party’s success just shows that despite shifts to blue and purple in other states, “Tennessee grew a deeper shade of red.”
In addition to its new state House majority, the Volunteer State also has its first Republican lieutenant governor since the 1860s. The red trend started two years ago, when Republicans won the state Senate majority. “[Tennessee’s GOP] is vibrant and growing,” Mumpower says. “It’s the future of Tennessee.”
The takeover surprised both parties, since Democrats led in the polls up until Nov. 4. “In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense this would be the year this would happen,” says Wade Munday, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party. “I’d credit it to the top of the ticket. McCain was able to secure a 26,000-vote lead in a district where a Democratic incumbent only lost by 256 votes.”
Now that Republicans hold 50 of the 99 House seats, Mumpower’s priorities are boosting education spending and tightening immigration laws. “Republicans are going to get a chance to put their money where their mouth is,” Munday says.
In the meantime, Dems are trying to build a comeback team. “We’ve seen a new generation of young Democrats coming in,” Munday says. “We just began recruiting county chairs last election cycle, and we’ll continue to reorganize and sharpen our campaign.”
It’s as red as red states get, but that didn’t stop Barack Obama’s campaign from competing in Nebraska’s 2nd District, comprised of Omaha and surrounding suburbs. Their work paid off. Nebraska offered up one electoral vote to Obama—the first for a Democrat in 44 years. Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that don’t follow the winner-take-all system. A 1991 Nebraska state law changed the state’s electoral system so that one electoral vote is awarded to the popular vote winner in each congressional district, and the remaining two go to the statewide winner.
This year’s election is the first in which the electoral votes have been split. As Nebraska Democrats celebrate their victory, the rumor in-state is that the Republican-dominated unicameral legislature will work to have the law revoked before the next presidential election. But Democrats are ready to fight, according to Eric Van Horn, communications director for the Nebraska Democratic Party. “We’re going to do whatever we can to preserve the current system and, along with it, preserve Nebraskans’ voice on the national stage,” he says.
In all the hoopla over the nation’s first black president, many politicos overlooked another historic first: New Hampshire’s state Senate is now majority female.
“This is the first legislative body in the United States that is majority female,” says Ilana Goldman, president of the Women’s Campaign Forum. “It’s utterly groundbreaking.” The Granite State already had a strong track record of electing women, including a governor and U.S. senator. But even at the local level, women in New Hampshire are no strangers to politics.
“Women have been seen more and more as community leaders, whether on the school board or city council or other things like that,” says Senate President Sylvia Larsen (D). “So it’s a natural progression that they would be seen as more likely to be state leaders.”
These leaders weren’t picked based on gender, and Goldman says they won’t be judged by any different standard. “People in New Hampshire are looking to see performance,” she says. “They want to see people take on issues and women seem to have a different perspective and a different voice.”
While women don’t hold a majority in the state House, it too has female leadership—who will largely set the agenda for the next few years. “[Having women as the leaders] is probably going to have more of an infl uence than the majority women in the Senate,” Goldman says. And while this presence is an accomplishment, some people are already making big plans for next year.
“I did have a conversation with former President Bill Clinton when he was here in New Hampshire,” Larsen says. “He said, ‘You could always look to Rwanda’s 58 percent female majority as your next goal.’”