Republicans will play defense in this fall's state legislative races to avoid a "tsunami" that could alter the political landscape in statehouses around the country, the head of the GOP's legislative campaign committee said Wednesday.
Democrats, who currently hold a 21-seat advantage among the country's 7,382 state legislative seats, are hoping the national mood and historical trends contribute to legislative gains.
"Some years you play offense, and some years you play defense," said Alex Johnson, executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. "And this is a year when we play a bit of defense and hope to steal a few."
Johnson said he is encouraging state lawmakers to focus on local issues, instead of issues that state legislatures have no jurisdiction over, such as the war in Iraq or congressional ethics.
Speaking on a panel at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, NCSL elections analyst Tim Storey said Democrats are poised to make gains in the midterm election.
The party that controls the White House has lost legislative seats in all but one midterm election since at least 1940, Storey said. The only exception was the first election after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Republicans gained 177 seats.
According to the NCSL, the top 10 legislative battleground states this fall are: Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee.
Republicans control 21 legislatures, Democrats control 19 and 10 are divided. Nebraska has the only nonpartisan legislature.
Republicans hope they can consolidate their gains in the South, Storey said. As recently as 1990, the GOP did not control a single legislative chamber in the region. But by 2005 more than half the chambers in the South were controlled by the GOP.
Republicans picked up more than 500 state legislative seats in 1994 as part of a groundswell that also swept the GOP into power in Congress. Having experienced those gains, Republicans will be careful not the end up on the losing side of a similar sweep, Johnson said.
"We, as Republicans, are a bit more prepared to stop a 1994-type tsunami, because we do see a lot of energy at the Democratic level and base," he said.
Statehouse importance growing
Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said state legislatures are growing in importance from a national perspective, especially in their control over redistricting.
"Shifts in a minute number of seats could have major implications for how legislative lines and congressional lines are going to be drawn in years to come," he said.
Neither campaign committee publicly identified a single voter issue they expect to mobilize turnout for their respective bases.
With dozens of ballot measures up for a vote this fall, Davies said there's likely to be a lot of "ballot confusion" for voters, and no single issue to drive voters to the support their parties' candidates.
In past elections "gay marriage was an issue that drove voters to the polls," Johnson said. "But we've seen polling which indicates that the intensity for that issue is not there for this cycle."
"There aren't as many clean hits as there used to be, where people are just going on the minimum wage or just going for gay marriage or against marriage," Davies said.