This year’s presidential race is shaping up to be the most interesting and unpredictable in decades. Six months ago, conventional wisdom held that John McCain was finished and Hillary Clinton was heading for a coronation in Denver. So much for conventional wisdom.
State legislators, like most Americans, are also watching the presidential race — but their interest also happens to be personal. Whom the parties nominate will have significant down-ticket effects, meaning that close state legislative races may turn on national trends.
Here’s an example. In the 2006 campaign, I walked to over 7,200 houses. I gave up counting how many times I heard some variation of the following statement: “I’ve voted Republican for decades, but this year I’m so fed up with George Bush I’m voting a straight Democratic ticket to send a message.” Political experts estimate this cost Republican candidates in Colorado between 3 and 7 points in the final vote.
The phenomenon of national trends influencing local races will only be more pronounced in 2008, when the presidential race is expected to drive increased voter turnout. People who vote in presidential elections, but not in midterms, tend to be disproportionately influenced by national, rather than local, issues.
So how will this play out in Colorado? I expect the presidential race will have an impact on state legislative races, possibly swinging several seats in one direction or the other. The stakes are control of the Colorado House (now held by Democrats 40-25) and Senate (where Democrats have a 20-15 edge).
Based on the numbers I’ve seen, the most likely “change” scenario unfolds if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president. Clinton’s negative poll numbers tend to be higher in Colorado than nationally, even among Democrats (witness Barack Obama’s blowout win here on Super Tuesday). Clinton’s relative unpopularity would create a headwind for local Democratic candidates — and in close races, the difference may be decisive.
If Obama is the nominee, all of that could change. Obama’s polls show lower negatives and stronger appeal amongst unaffiliated voters, so his nomination could provide a lift for local Democratic candidates.
As for McCain, the likely Republican nominee, it’s hard to say. There isn’t the same enthusiasm for McCain in the Republican base as there would be for a more conservative candidate. That said, I expect Republicans to rally around McCain when the choice becomes liberal vs. conservative, as it will when the nominees are finalized.
In short, the major party presidential nominees — especially on the Democratic side — may have a big impact on the composition of the Colorado legislature. Will it be enough to swing the House, the Senate or both from Democratic to Republican control? It’s too early to tell. But right now, one thing is for sure: Republican candidates in Colorado are rooting for Hillary.
Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.