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Republican Candidates Strain To Hold On To Senate Seats


The 2016 election starts to look different when you look below the top of the ticket. Republicans are at risk of losing a third straight presidential election and are straining to hold on to the Senate. But it's worth recalling a statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on this program in June.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I think the Republican Party is at an all-time high. We don't have the White House. But we've had very good years.

INSKEEP: Indeed, Republicans have. For one thing, the party has dominated state and local elections. Thirty-one of 50 governors are Republican. Two-thirds of state legislatures are controlled by Republicans.

So what happens now? Well, let's talk about that with Tim Storey, an elections analyst for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. He's on the line. Welcome to the program.

TIM STOREY: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Do the numbers we just cited mean that Republicans have a lot more to lose than Democrats this fall?

STOREY: That's right. The challenge for the GOP in this election is that they are at historic highs. So it's a lot more difficult for them to make much ground from here. So Democrats see this as an opportunity year.

INSKEEP: What's a state that could flip?

STOREY: Well, there are probably 20 states where legislative chambers could go from one part to the other. In almost all cases, those are Republican legislative chambers that are held now. And the Democrats hope to swing them back to the Democratic column.

Colorado is a state where the state Senate is Republican and the state House is democratic. So if the Democrats could win back the state Senate, they'd have full control of Colorado state government.

And the other side - in Kentucky, the Kentucky House is the last legislative chamber in the South that is not controlled by Republicans. And they only need to pick up three seats to retake control for the first time in decades.

INSKEEP: What about North Carolina, which is a swing state that voted once for President Obama but has a very conservative legislature right now?

STOREY: It's been a long time since the Democrats controlled the North Carolina Legislature. But as a result of Republican success in the 2010 election, they had control of the redistricting process.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should just remind people this is splitting up the map of the state into a bunch of legislative districts. And where you draw the line could give your district 51 percent of voters for you or 45 percent of voters for you.

STOREY: Right. I mean, of course, many things play into elections - not just the makeup of the district. And, of course, the U.S. Constitution requires that this happen every 10 years to even out the districts just on population - one person, one vote. But, obviously, if there's partisan intent, and both parties engage in this, it can have an impact that goes far beyond just that next election.

INSKEEP: Are Democrats looking at this as a multi-year effort they would have to make to gain back a majority of state legislatures, say?

STOREY: Yeah. If you're going to start winning back seats in the state legislatures, you've got to take a long view. You've got to make gains now. You've got to shore up those gains. It's a lot easier to run as an incumbent.

INSKEEP: What would make Eric Holder, the former attorney general, want to lead, as he is, an effort to do this very thing?

STOREY: Well, I think they're looking at that redistricting element. And they're saying that there have been structural disadvantages because of the redistricting process and because of Republican dominance in the states. So they realize that the next census is not too far away. And they need to position themselves for that upcoming redistricting process.

INSKEEP: Is there danger to Democrats that they've had so few governorships, so few state legislatures the last several years, which means they haven't been growing new candidates for higher offices?

STOREY: The more important thing, I think, is who drives the agenda. Under Republican control of states over the last six, eight years, Republicans have really put their policy imprint on the nation. They have cut taxes. They've cut spending.

They have passed social reforms on some of the more controversial issues like gun control and abortion. So they told the voters that's what they would do. They were elected, and they did it.

INSKEEP: Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, thanks very much.

STOREY: What a pleasure, Steve. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.