LAS VEGAS — It was more than 100 degrees here the other evening, but inside a buzzing office tucked away on a stretch of gun stores and pornography shops, Democrats were staring into computer screens and talking urgently into cellphones. The stakes were high: The Nevada Senate, which Democrats control by a single seat, could very well shift into Republican hands after November.
“Hi, this is Justin Jones, I’m your state senator,” said Jones, a Democrat who won by only 301 votes two years ago. “We have a really important election campaign coming up this fall. I wanted to see if I could count on your support.”
Pause. “Great, Ronald, that’s fantastic.”
It is not only Nevada. Republicans, who had appeared to hit a high-water mark in control of state houses in recent years, are seeking to pick off another half-dozen chambers this year, taking advantage of President Obama’s persistent unpopularity, anxiety about the economy, and a history of anemic turnout among Democrats in nonpresidential election years. In addition, the party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in state houses in those years.
At a time when Democrats and Republicans in control of state houses are using their authority to push through ambitious policies that by contrast highlight the paralysis in Washington, the potential for further Republican gains has raised the possibility of deepening the policy divide between red and blue states. Republicans now control 59 of the 99 partisan legislative chambers, and have complete political control — both legislative houses and the governor’s mansion — in 23 states, while Democrats control 13. The total number of states ruled by a single political party, 36, is the highest in six decades.
Officials from both parties say there are two states that the Republicans might be able to add to the list of places where they enjoy complete control — Iowa and Arkansas. (There are no similar opportunities for Democrats.) Given that, Republicans this year are also looking to pick off individual chambers as a way of increasing their negotiating ability with Democratic governors and state houses, or to block Democrats from passing legislation.
Republicans are looking to take over senates in Colorado, Iowa, Oregon, Maine, and Nevada, and houses in Kentucky, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. Republicans could emerge with complete control of the legislatures in New Hampshire and Kentucky, though both of those states have Democratic governors.
They hope these victories will help them push through legislation that has been stymied by Democrats until now, such as pressing the kind of restrictions on labor organizing the party passed in Wisconsin, or rolling back gun laws in Colorado. In Iowa, Republicans are looking to eliminate a tax on manufacturing and enact a ban there on telemedicine abortions, where women in rural areas obtain abortion pills after videoconference consultations with faraway doctors.
Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which is spearheading the state house efforts, said, “The pattern is crystal clear at this point, and Wisconsin is the best example of it: That ability to drive your agenda when you are completely in control of state government will absolutely continue to play out.”
Walter said even picking up a house in a divided state was critical at a time when both parties are so ambitious. “The ability to restrain the other side from advancing their agenda very often comes down to a couple of seats in one chamber,” he said.
In Iowa, Democrats hold a two-seat edge in the Senate. The House is Republican, and Terry Branstad, the popular Republican governor, seems almost certain to win reelection. (Arkansas could also go all-Republican if the party wins the governor’s seat; that is complicated by what both parties acknowledge is one of the few bright spots for Democrats — the possibility of picking up the lower house there.)