At this point, you've probably completely reached the saturation point on knowing which way the presidential race is tipping in the key states. If you're paying close attention, you know how the U.S. Senate is going to shake out, what's going on this year's few gubernatorial races, and likely even know what's happening in the U.S. House. However, even if you're a political junkie, you've probably heard very little about the races that may well have the biggest impact on your day-to-day lives: the realm of state legislatures and ballot measures (and that likely goes double for legislatures and initiatives outside your own state).
2012 isn't going to be as momentous a year for electing state legislatures as 2010 was—that was the year that it got decided who had control of the process of redistricting the U.S. House, and unfortunately, that was also the year that the Republicans took control of a number of legislative chambers. State legislatures, however, are still often the laboratory for new policy innovation (much more so than the increasingly paralyzed Congress), and they're also critically important because they're the party's bench of future contenders for higher office. Handicappers tend to see the 2012 state legislative picture as something as a wash, with the parties poised to trade a few chambers back and forth (not a surprising outcome in a non-wave, nuts-and-bolts election that also is poised to be close but preserve the status quo at the national level too).
Not every state allows the initiative process, but in those that do, some of the most momentous changes come that way (for better and worse). For instance, it's hard to imagine any state's legislature opting to legalize and regulate marijuana—yet that's exactly what might happen in three states this year (Colorado, Oregon and Washington) thanks to the initiative process. Even in states where there's no initiative process, legislatively referred constitutional amendments can still put fundamentals questions of governance before the voters.
With that in mind, over the fold we're going to preview some of the most competitive state legislative battlegrounds, and some of the biggest statewide ballot measures. This list isn't exhaustive. If your state isn't included, it doesn't mean we're ignoring it; it just means that each legislative chamber is likely to stay in the hands of the majority party and that it's not home to one of the most hot-button ballot measures. Please feel free to chip in in the comments and talk more about what's going on in your state; the national press spends little time on this realm—especially the individual swing-district races that might decide the outcome in competitive legislatures—so any local color you can provide will help flesh out the picture for all of us.
(Continue reading below the fold.)
ALABAMA: Most of Alabama's legislatively referred ballot questions are small-bore, but one potentially-interesting one is the vote on whether to prohibit "mandatory participation in any health care system." In other words, it's an attempt to undercut (some might say "nullify") the Affordable Care Act; it's a little ignorant of, well, the basic legal relationship between the federal and state governments, but it should help keep the ACA entangled in the courts for years to come. Similar measures are on the ballot in Florida and Wyoming this year. Alabama's Republican-controlled state legislature isn't up for reelection this year.
ALASKA: Alaska's state House is pretty firmly in Republican hands, but the Alaska's state Senate is a highly unusual case. The Senate is divided between 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans, but functionally it's controlled by a coalition of Democrats and establishment Republicans, with a handful of tea partying and/or social conservative GOPers forming the minority. Outside Republican groups are making a strong push to pick off a couple Democrats this year, helped along by redistricting and population growth in conservative areas. The real question, though, if Republicans break the tie, is if the Republicans can coalesce into one caucus, or if the coalition holds as pro-public-works Republicans (in this most public-works-dependent state) decide to keep casting their lot with the Democrats.
ARIZONA: Arizona's state legislature is likely to stay in Republican hands, after they made significant gains in 2010, though the Democrats will probably gain seats. There's one potentially big change to the way Arizona conducts elections, though: There's an initiative on the ballot to switch to the same "Top Two" primary system used in Washington and California (and, presumably, to the same chaos that the new system has engendered in California).
ARKANSAS: Arkansas has not one but two initiatives on the ballot proposing casino gambling as a fix to the state's economic woes. The real woes, however, may be at the state legislative level, where the state's increasingly reddish hue may finally turn the state's Democratic-since-the-dawn-of-time legislature over to the Republicans. The margins have slowly been getting closer over the years (Democrats control the Senate 20-15 and the House 54-46), and now the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity is putting a lot of money into the state to get it over the top. Handicappers have slotted in both chambers as "Lean Republican."
CALIFORNIA: One of the most important state legislative fights is in California, but it's certainly not because Democratic majorities are at stake in either chamber. Far from it: The question is whether the Democrats (who control the Senate 25-15 and the Assembly 52-28) can get over the magic two-thirds mark. That's because California has an absurd two-thirds requirement for important fiscal legislation, allowing the GOP minority to tie the legislature in knots and keep the state from raising the revenue it needs. Thanks to redistricting, the 2/3rds mark seems likely in the Senate, but not that likely in the Assembly.
California—always the nation's leader in governance by initiative (or some might say "paralysis by initiative")—also has a slew of important ballot measures, including two tax competing tax increases designed to improve K-12 funding. Polls indicate Prop 30 (Jerry Brown's preferred measure, which raises taxes on top-tier incomes) is narrowly passing, while the Molly Munger-backed Prop 38 (which casts a much broader taxing net) is failing by a wide margin. Polls have also shown that Prop 36, which would reform the state's ineffective "three strikes" law, is passing, while Prop 34 (which would end the death penalty) and Prop 37 (which sets standards for labeling of genetically modified food) look too close to call. Prop 32 is a measure that at first glance sounds good ("ban on corporate and union contributions to local and state political candidates"), but it's a trojan horse: The net result would be to hamper unions from spending money on elections, and thanks to strong union opposition, the measure seems to be narrowly failing.
COLORADO: One of the most closely divided state legislative chambers in the nation is Colorado's House, which the GOP picked up in 2010 and control 33-32. This will go down to the wire, though observers are optimistic about a Democratic pickup here. (The Senate is expected to stay in Democratic hands.) There's also a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot—not medical marijuana, but a full-blown legalization for recreational use along with creation of a state regulatory system—which according to polling is poised to pass. (What that means, in terms of how much the federal government will keep hands off the state system, is anybody's guess, but it's certainly an important step.)
FLORIDA: You might think Florida's status as pre-eminent swing state means that the legislature is up for grabs this year, but that's not likely. The Republicans control the Senate 28-12 and the House 81-39. The state's 2010 Fair Districts initiative has undone some of the worst of the egregious gerrymandering that allowed the GOP to run up numbers like that during the previous decade, meaning that Democratic gains are likely, but retaking the majorities right away seems a bridge too far.
HAWAII: Hawaii might be worth watching if only to see if the Democrats can convert their 24-1 edge in the State Senate into a 25-0 advantage.
IOWA: One of the state legislative chambers that's on a knife's edge is the Iowa State Senate, where the Democrats are in control 26-24. This is one of the biggest Tossups in the whole country, though redistricting might have benefited the Democrats a bit here. The state House is controlled 60-40 by Republicans and unlikely to flip back, so with a Republican governor for at least two more years, holding that Senate majority is the one bulwark against giving the GOP one more state-level trifecta.
KENTUCKY: You might be surprised to hear that the Democrats are still in control of one chamber of their legislature, holding the House 59-41. (The Senate is pretty firmly GOP, 22-15.) Kentucky is one southern state, though, where ancestral Democratic tendencies still are strong at the state level, even when not at the presidential level. Given the state's reddish hue, though, prognosticators have slotted the state House in as one to watch, at "Lean Democratic."
MAINE: Maine is home to one of the most closely watched ballot measures in the country: The question as to whether to overturn a previous ban on same-sex marriage. Maine notoriously passed a statewide ban on gay marriage in 2009, and it looks like the state is poised to undo that, as a PPP poll from this weekend has the measure passing 52-45. (That's still cause for concern because it's a topic where undecideds tend to break against—as you'll remember from 2009 polling—but if it's over 50 percent, that bodes well.)
Maine was also scene of one of the unlikeliest GOP legislative takeovers in 2010; given the narrowness of their majorities (19-15 in the Senate, 78-72 in the House) and the state's bluish tint, we may see both flip back this year. Prognosticators have these chambers at either "Tossup" or "Lean Democratic."
MARYLAND: Maryland doesn't have an initiative process, but it does have a people's veto referendum process, and thanks to that, it has three big ballot measures this year, trying to undo legislative actions. The biggest one is same-sex marriage, which was approved by the legislature this year; most previous polling has shown the measure passing by a decent margin, but the most recent poll, from the Baltimore Sun, had the measure failing 47-46. The tightening in the race may be attributable to a late surge of outside money into the race, targeting African-American voters in particular. Voters are also being asked to approve the legislature's state-level DREAM Act and their heavily gerrymandered (if strongly pro-Democratic) U.S. House map, both of which are narrowly passing. (Maryland's legislature isn't up for election this year, though its Democratic supermajorities are big enough that it wouldn't be an issue anyway.)
MASSACHUSETTS: Massachusetts has two interesting initiatives on the ballot this year, though given the state's strongly liberal status, it's surprising that these haven't already been enacted years ago. The measures would allow physician-assisted suicide and use of medical marijuana. (The Democrats' crushing legislative majorities should easily stay in place this year.)
MICHIGAN: Michigan doesn't have any ballot measures on hot-button cultural issues, but it does have some of the nation's highest-profile measures as far as labor (and good governance) is concerned. At the top of the list is a veto referendum that would rein in the state's controversial "emergency manager" provision, that allows the state government to take over municipalities and school districts in financial distress. Recent polling indicates that the provision is likely to be struck down.
However, that same poll also predicts defeat for two good initiatives, one of which would guarantee collective bargaining rights for both public and private sector workers, the other of which would require that 25 percent of the state's electricity be generated by renewable sources by 2025. Other measures on the ballot include a measure requiring a California-style 2/3rds majority in the legislature to raise taxes, and a measure requiring a public vote before building a new Detroit-Windsor bridge. (Only the state House—not the Senate—is up for a vote this year, and the GOP edge there, 63-47, is large enough that it's not likely to flip back this year.)
MINNESOTA: Minnesota has one of the four same-sex marriage measures, but unlike the others, this one is referred from a Republican-controlled legislature and is phrased in the negative (it's a vote to ban same-sex marriage, in other words). So, when PPP says that 52 percent are opposed to this measure and only 45 percent support it, that's a good thing! In addition, the state has a Republican-referred voter ID measure on the ballot, and that's failing too, 51-46 according to PPP's weekend poll. Minnesota may also be poised to have a legislature next year that stops sending out such crappy legislation ... Republicans have only narrow edges in both chambers (37-30 in the Senate and 72-62 in the House, after flipping both in 2010), and with a lot of shaky-looking incumbents, prognosticators view both chambers as Tossups.
MONTANA: Much of the highest-profile state-level opposition to the Citizens United decision has come out of Montana (especially from its Supreme Court), and that continues with an initiative that would prohibit corporate contributions and expenditures in both state and national-level elections. (A September PPP poll found the measure passing by a wide margin.) There's also one of the nation's few abortion-related ballot measures this year, one that would require parental notification. The state's House is likely to stay Republican; the state's Senate is too, really, but with only a 28-22 GOP margin it's still within reach and worth watching this year.
NEVADA: One of the key legislative chambers this year is Nevada's state Senate, where the Democrats are in control by a 12-11 margin and control comes down to a handful of closely fought seats in Las Vegas and Reno. This chamber is universally regarded as a Tossup, though the Democrats are likely to retain their edge in the Assembly (currently at 26-16), which would prevent a Republican trifecta regardless of how the Senate turns out.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: To retake the New Hampshire state House, the Democrats only have to reverse a 290-104 deficit. (Yes, there are 400 members in the chamber, a ratio of about 1 Rep. per 3,000 residents.) That may sound impossible, but the New Hampshire House is remarkably volatile, subject to huge amounts of churn given its massive size (bear in mind that the Democrats held it before 2010). Pundits rate the chances of it flipping as unlikely, but given New Hampshire's high "elasticity" I think this is one sleeper chamber to watch.
NEW MEXICO: New Mexico has a fairly tight margin in its Dem-controlled state House, with only a 36-33 edge. Prognosticators can't seem to agree on what exactly that means, though, with predictions ranging from "Lean Democratic" to "Lean GOP;" given the state's Dem leanings and it being a presidential year, I'd expect it to stay blue. The state Senate (with a 26-15 Dem margin) seems pretty locked in, as well.
NEW YORK: Somewhat unbelievably, the dark-blue state of New York has almost always had a Republican-controlled state Senate, thanks to a gerrymandered power sharing agreement that carves out a GOP-friendly map (in exchange for an impenetrably Democratic state Assembly map). That agreement continued in 2012, thanks to some complicity from Dem Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The GOP's narrow edge is currently 32-30; given that it's a presidential year and that many of those GOPers are in seats that are blue at the presidential level, you might expect it to flip back to Democratic control (as it was from 2008 to 2010). But a race-by-race polling analysis, and a GOP gambit to expand the Senate by adding a 63rd district, suggest that the narrow GOP edge is likelier than not to survive yet again.
NORTH CAROLINA: The Republican leads in the legislature (where they flipped both chambers in 2010) aren't insurmountable, at 31-19 in the Senate and 67-52 in the House), but with the redistricting pen in their hands, it looks like they've locked in some of those gains. Generic legislative ballot polling has shown a tie or small Democratic edges, but with a new GOP-friendly map, that means Dem gains are likely to fall short of majorities.
OHIO: Ohio has one of the most critically important ballot measures in the country, in the form of a citizen's initiative to take redistricting out of the hands of the (currently Republican-controlled) legislature and put it in the hands of an independent commission, a la California and Washington. This is important because it would force a mid-decade undoing of the GOP's gerrymandered House map, which could mean a couple additional Democratic seats in the U.S. House out of Ohio. Unfortunately—whether it's because of an arcane topic or ominous-sounding ballot phrasing ("remove authority of elected representatives and grant new authority to appointed officials")—the measure hasn't gotten much traction, and polling has found the measure failing (though with high undecideds). Ohio's state House, which the GOP picked up in 2010, is at least worth watching, though their 59-40 edge gives them a big enough cushion to survive some Democratic gains. (The state Senate is safely Republican.)
OREGON: The state of Oregon likes its initiative system, and likes its pot—so it's kind of odd that Oregon seems unlikely to be one of the first states to fully legalize and regulate marijuana use via citizen vote. Polling has seen the measure trailing on a regular basis; the best explanation is that, unlike the efforts in Colorado and Washington, the efforts in Oregon are hampered by a complete lack of funding and organization. (Insert obvious stoner joke here.) On the plus side, polling suggests that Oregon is likely to increase its K-12 funding by redirecting corporate income tax refunds.
Oregon also has one of the nation's most closely divided legislatures, with a 16-14 Democratic edge in the state Senate and a 30-30 tie (with Democratic and GOP co-speakers) in the House. The good news is that Democrats seem likely to not only preserve their Senate edge but also to move the House in their direction by a few seats, which would restore the Democratic trifecta in the state.
PENNSYLVANIA: The Democrats are likely to gain seats in both chambers of the state legislature but come up short in terms of gaining majorities. In the state Senate, they seem to have two currently GOP-held seats nailed down, which would move the chamber from a 30-20 GOP edge to a 28-22 margin; a few more seats are in play, though, so it's definitely worth watching what happens with this chamber that's been in GOP hands for ages. The state House, given its huge 203-member size, is subject to a lot of churn depending on which way the wind is blowing, but the GOP's 112-93 edge (after picking the House up in 2010) seems big enough to help them survive any Democratic gains.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The GOP's big majorities in the state legislature aren't in question, but there is one interesting ballot measure: a legislature-referred question as to whether the state should switch from separately electing a lieutenant governor to having the LG picked by the governor as part of a ticket. This seems like an attempt to add a bit of quality control, in a state where the last few LGs were embarrassments.
TEXAS: Remember when we were considering the possibility of flipping the Texas state House back in 2008? Well, it's currently 102-48 in the GOP's favor. Latino growth and inevitable snap-back from 2010 will probably lead to some Dem gains, but as with everything else about Texas, it's a long-term project for the Democrats.
WASHINGTON: Washington manages to hit the hot-button cultural issue two-fer: both same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization are on the ballot. Same-sex marriage was instituted by the legislature earlier in the year, but social conservative forces got enough signatures for a people's veto referendum; however, a similar people's veto of domestic partnerships failed in 2009 and now three years later it looks like full-on marriage will survive as well. In addition, there's an initiative for legalizing and regulating marijuana use. Recent polling has shown both measures passing by wide margins, often in the range of 20-point margins. Unfortunately, the polls also indicate that a measure to allow charter schools in the state—an idea that's been warded off multiple times in the past by state voters—seems likely to pass as well.
Washington's state House looks secure for the Democrats at 56-42, but prognosticators are bullish on the GOP making gains in the state Senate (currently held by the Democrats at 27-22), with some even calling it a "Tossup." That makes little sense, though, because while they have two plausible pickups, there's no particularly plausible third pickup to get them over the top, and they have some tough defenses as well. (If you go by the results of the state's Top 2 primary, which has a pretty strong predictive value for the general election, the GOP is on track to net only a one-seat gain.)
WEST VIRGINIA: West Virginia is similar to Arkansas ideologically and demographically, another southern state that's clung to its Democratic roots even while moving into the red column at the presidential level. Unlike Arkansas, though, West Virginia Democrats look like they'll have an easy time holding onto their legislative majorities (65-35 in the House and 28-6 in the Senate); prognosticators see these chambers as either "Safe" or "Likely Democratic," and there's no outside money trying to tip the balance.
WISCONSIN: Even though the Wisconsin Democrats managed to take over the state Senate via recall elections earlier this year (and now hold a 17-16 edge), that always seemed like something of a pyrrhic victory because they'd be facing a new set of elections in November, under the redistricting maps that the legislature forced through when both chambers were under Republican control. Control will come down to a few close races, but redistricting changes in the GOP's favor have handicappers seeing the chamber as a "Lean Republican"—which would promptly restore the Republican trifecta there. The Republicans have a bigger built-in edge in the Assembly (up 59-39), so even with Democratic gains that's also likely to stay in their hands.