Below the Radar Screen - Reading Tea Leaves After November

September 8, 2002

by Bruce Walker

Much of what happens in the mid-term elections in November will be conspicuous and simple to follow. If Republicans gain a single Senate seat, then Republicans will recapture the Senate; if Democrats capture seven House seats, the Democrats will recapture the House. Any combination of results is possible, including a Republican Senate and a Democrat House.

The gubernatorial races in California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts and Illinois also are big and important. A Republican victory in California would be major news, as would a Democrat victory in Texas. Both are possible.

Some of the biggest long-term political news, however, will not be easy to calibrate the day after the election. Yet it will point towards trends that will determine which of the two political parties is the true majority party. These “tea leaves” are formed of a lot of little numbers, rather than one or two big ones.

After the election returns are all certified, note the total votes cast for Republican and Democrat House candidates. During the last four general elections, Republican candidates for House races collectively received more votes than Democrat candidates for those races. This percentage, particularly in light of the Republican Party’s nationalizing of House races in 1994, indicates that Republicans have become the majority party. If more people vote for Republican candidates for House races in 2002 than for Democrat candidates, then the trend will be clear: voters have changed a very long tradition of voting Democrat and instead have begun a tradition of voting Republican.

State legislative races are an even more telling indicator of what actually happens in November elections. In every mid-term election since 1942, the political party that controlled the White House has lost in overall state legislative seats, although twice—in 1950 and in 1998--the president’s political party slightly increased the number of seats in the upper chambers of state legislatures.

Yet a close look at recent trends shows it conceivable that Republicans could actually come out of the November elections with more state legislative seats. Such would be a stunning indication of change in political support for the two political parties at the grassroots level.

What would make this a real disaster for the Democrats is that in every general election since 1992 Democrats have lost seats in state legislatures. When Clinton won his first election, Democrats lost seats in the lower and upper chambers of state legislatures nationally. When the Republicans swept into Congress in 1994, the Republican state legislative gains were even bigger. In 1996, while Clinton won reelection and Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives—at the state legislature level, Democrats lost 88 seats in the lower houses and 62 seats in the upper houses.

Even in 1998, when Democrats were widely perceived to have “won” the mid-term election, Democrats had a small net loss of state legislative seats. And even in the very close 2000 election, Democrats lost another 43 seats in state legislature lower houses and 21 seats in their upper houses.

The total Democratic losses in these five consecutive general elections equals almost eight hundred state legislative seats. Not only did these losses allow Republicans to redraw congressional districts so that for the first time in modern political history redistricting may actually give Republicans a slight edge (compared with the usual effect of giving Democrats a huge edge) but this also will portend well for Republicans in the next redistricting process.

State legislatures are the grooming ground for bigger state and federal elective offices. The more Republican state legislators, the stronger the Republican Party pool of candidates and the more free publicity these candidates will receive. Controlling state legislative chambers or having enough votes to sustain a veto gives Republicans the power to stop Democrats from using state governments for their own political benefit.

Might Republicans gain legislative seats for an unprecedented sixth straight general election? Yes. Although all the attention has been focused for some time on the shape of congressional districts in Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Michigan, the “below the radar” story is that for the first time in many decades state legislative districts are not overwhelmingly gerrymandered to elect Democrats. This is a direct result of all those Republican state legislators elected since 1992.

One final number to track on Tuesday evening is the number of Republican governors. While the governorship of Maryland, Hawaii, Iowa and Alabama may seem much less important than California or Texas, governors tend over time to become popular political figures who can waltz into open Senate seats. Miller, Carper and Carnahan all won critical senate races for Democrats in Election 2000 because they had been governors (or, in the case of Jean Carnahan, the widow of deceased candidate Governor Carnahan).

Republican gubernatorial victories in Minnesota, Maryland, Oregon and Hawaii could easily turn into Republican Senate seats from states unlikely to elect Republican senators otherwise. Although it is better to have a Republican governor of New York than Hawaii, a senator from New York has precisely the same vote as a senator from Hawaii.

So regardless of what happens election-Tuesday night, if you want to know what it means in terms of political power, look less for the nominal control of the Senate or House and look more at the voting tendencies, the state legislative seats and the number of future senators that Republicans elect as new governors.


Bruce Walker has been a dyed in the wool conservative since, as a sixth grader, he campaigned door to door for Barry Goldwater. Bruce has had almost two hundred published articles have appeared in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, Law & Order, Legal Secretary Today, The Single Parent, Enter Stage Right, Citizen's View, The American Partisan, Port of Call, and several other professional and political periodicals.

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For more of Bruce's articles, visit his archives.

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