Election 2014 Caravan of Delights: The Fight for Control of State Legislatures

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 03, 2014 4 min read
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As we get closer to the Nov. 4 general election, I will take a look each day at a state election of interest. (If you’ve missed my election reporting from California, Florida, and Georgia, you’ve still got time to catch up!) I’ll look at polling numbers and the candidates’ general positions on K-12 issues, and I’ll also highlight the political and policy

environments that are influencing the debate about public schools. Today, in a special edition of the “Caravan of Delights,” I will look at how the election could impact state legislatures.

In my recent posts previewing key state elections for K-12, I’ve mostly focused on state superintendents and governors. But it’s important to remember that all but four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia) are holding elections for their legislatures in 2014. According to recent information from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a grand total of 6,049 state senate and house seats are up for grabs. One key question will be whether the recent state-level trend will continue and a decreasing number of states have divided partisan control. As you can see from the map below, featured in our Election Guide online, very few states have partisan splits:

Out of all the state legislative seats up for election this year, 1,092 are senate seats and 4,957 are house seats. Only three states (Iowa, Kentucky, and New Hampshire) have partisan splits in their legislatures between their lower and upper chambers—remember, Nebraska only has a single legislative chamber. When you throw in governors, 11 states have partisan splits between their legislatures and governors.

In 12 states with elections this year, a party controls the upper chamber by five seats or less, including Maine, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Meawhile, nine states with elections have a party that controls the lower chamber by fewer than 10 seats, including Michigan and Oregon.

So where could partisan control of legislatures flip relatively easily, and what are the education policy issues in play in those states? Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

• Colorado Senate: Right now, Democrats control both chambers of the state General Assembly, and Gov. John Hickenlooper is also a Democrat. But the Democrats control the upper chamber by only a one-vote margin, 18-17. (Democrats have a nine-vote margin in the lower chamber.) This year, 18 state senate seats are up for election.

One key legislator up for re-election is Sen. Andy Kerr, a Democrat who leads the Senate education committee. He’s in a close race with Republican Tony Sanchez for his senate seat in Jefferson County, which is frequently viewed as a key swing county in Colorado when it comes to electoral politics. The Denver Post reported about how Kerr recently waded into the controversy around U.S. history in Jefferson County schools—he’s argued that the proposal to emphasize patriotism in the curriculum hasn’t gotten enough public input.

Meanwhile in another close race, state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, seeking her first full term and a member of the Senate education committee, was recently highlighted by Chalkbeat Colorado in the context of independent committee spending on elections. She also represents Jefferson County.

Remember, there are a host of other elections in Colorado this year. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall is fighting tooth and nail to fend off GOP challenger Cory Gardner, Hickenlooper is locked in a tight race with Bob Beauprez, and there are state school board elections this year. Could there be a host of new faces in charge of education policy in the state in 2015?

• Iowa Legislature: Iowa features close margins of partisan control in both chambers. Democrats control the state senate by a two-vote margin, 26-24, while Republican enjoy a little more breathing room in the house, 53-47.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican broadly considered to be interested in his party’s 2016 presidential nod, has campaigned in Iowa to help Republicans seeking state senate seats. Below, you can see him giving a pep talk where he focuses on what the GOP can accomplish if it gains complete control of the state legislature:

Democratic Sen. Herman Quirmbach, chairman of the Senate education committee, defeated a primary challenge and is facing a Republican in the Nov. 4 election. His Republican counterpart on the House education committee, Rep. Greg Forristall, is unopposed in his re-election bid.

Iowa is using its own assessments for the 2014-15 school year, and is undecided about its testing plans for the 2015-16 school year? How would a Republican-controlled legislature deal with those issues? And could GOP lawmakers make a push against the Common Core State Standards?

Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, is expected to win his re-election bid easily, while U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst has a good shot to win her election against Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley. That could help Republicans down ballot seeking state senate seats.

• Washington and New York Senates: These two upper chambers are notable because they are led by partisan coalitions. However, such coalitions could be broken up depending on how elections go and if one party or the other picks up seats.

Republicans lead the Washington state Senate coalition, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans 25-24, while a Democrat and a Republican lead the coalition in New York, where Democratic senators technically outnumber their GOP counterparts 32-29.

The stakes could be particularly high in Washington state. That’s because the legislature there is supposed to work with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to dramatically increase K-12 funding in 2015, after the state Supreme Court found the state in contempt earlier this year for failing to adequately boost resources for public schools.

For NCSL’s full breakdown of which parties control which state legislatures, and by how much, click here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.