Control of State Houses, Legislatures and Fate of Ballot Initiatives to Be Decided Tuesday

November 1, 2019 by Dan McCue
American democracy on display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – On Tuesday, November 5, voters in two states will cast their vote for governor, while in four states, the makeup of the legislature will be determined — noteworthy all on their own because they will have a significant impact on the redistricting that will occur following the 2020 census.

And as always in an off-year election, there are scores of mayoral and other elections on the ballot as well as many local citizens initiatives.

But a year out from the 2020 presidential election, and mere days after the U.S. House of Representatives approved the procedures for the impeachment inquiry, the outcomes of these races — and a gubernatorial run-off election in Louisiana on Nov. 12 — will no doubt be seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump.

Heading into the final weekend before election day, political pundits in Mississippi and Louisiana, say the respective races for governor remain surprisingly competitive considering Trump won the former state by 18 points and the latter by 20 points.

In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, is term-limited, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, is running to succeed him, having survived both a Republican primary and a subsequent runoff election to secure the nomination.

Challenging him is the state’s Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. Tellingly, both men have been party mainstays in their state for years, each running in — and winning — elections in Mississippi since 2003.

Beyond their capacity to win, however, the two men couldn’t be more different.

Reeves is seen as a serious, policy wonk, while Hood portrays himself as a good ‘ole boy of the Deep South. Even his campaign ads emphasize the fact he drives an old pickup trick to church on Sunday and that he’s an avid gun owner.

Reeves is running on a platform touting the reduction of the state’s debt at a time when it is also cutting taxes. Hood, a moderate Democrat, has argued the tax cuts have not benefited the average Mississippian, but have instead lined the pockets of large, out-of-state corporations.

The Democrat’s hopes rest in the fact that he has been cultivating the state’s rural base for 16 years, and he appeals to blue-collar workers in a way that Hillary Clinton didn’t in 2016.

But Trump remains popular in Mississippi, and that has political analysts like the independent, non-partisan Cook Political Report maintaining the race is tilting toward Reeves. If that is indeed the case, it won’t hurt that Trump is traveling to Tupelo, Mississippi on Friday for a campaign rally.

 Louisiana

The other highly competitive gubernatorial race is in Louisiana, where a runoff election between the top two candidates in the October primary won’t be held until Nov. 16.

On that date, incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, will face off against Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

On primary night, Oct. 12, Edwards received 46.6% of the vote, garnering the support of 626,000 voters, while second place finisher Rispone, received 27.4 percent of the vote, garnering the support of 383,318 voters.

“We’ve got a little more work to do,” Edwards told supporters at an election night watch party in Baton Rouge.

In a speech to supporters on primary night, Edwards, a conservative Democrat who framed his campaign around the message “people over politics,” remained defiant in the face of the Republican push.

“Over the next 5 weeks, the partisan forces in Washington, D.C., are going to pull out all the stops,” he said. “And there’s nothing they won’t say or do to try to win this election, but it won’t work.”

As for Rispone, he told his supporters that the outcome of the primary was “just the first step.”

“With your prayers, we’re going to win,” he said. He added, “We’re going to turn this state around.” During Edwards’ tenure, Louisiana has gone from having a budget deficit to a budget surplus, according to the governor’s office. He has emphasized increasing funding for K-12 schools, raising teacher pay, and expanding Medicaid in the state as other accomplishments of his administration.

Rispone describes himself as a supporter of President Trump, and has been emphasizing his conservatism and the fact he’s a political outsider.

In 2016, Trump defeated Clinton by 19.7 percentage points in the state.

Kentucky

Perhaps the bitterest gubernatorial race this year is in Kentucky, where voters will head to the polls November 5.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is running for reelection. The Democratic nominee is Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Libertarian John Hicks has also qualified for the ballot.

But its Bevin and Beshear everybody is watching. The two men have been embroiled in conflict for nearly four years — commencing with their elections to their current positions.

Since then, the Lexington Herald-Leader has said, “the two men found in each other a rival to battle in courtroom filings, newspaper headlines and social media posts.”

Though the main issues in the race are healthcare and education funding, the current campaign has only heightened tensions between the two men.

According to the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization Ballotpedia, Bevin has called Beshear’s family “crooked and corrupt,” while the Beshear campaign has called Bevin “an unhinged failure.”

On Thursday, the state’s highest circulation newspaper, the Louisville Courier Journal endorsed Beshear, lauding his plan to “prioritize education and economic diversification above all else.”

The editorial goes on to praise Beshear for his “holistic vision for helping Kentucky’s families and for advancing the commonwealth.”

Bevin declined to meet with The Courier Journal.

“That’s fine, Gov. Bevin,” the newspaper said. “But your reticence also signals a brand of arrogance, preferring to dodge legitimate questions asked not exclusively by The Courier Journal, but thousands of Kentucky voters. We had three community roundtables, and these are issues dozens of attendees wanted you to address.” 

“Beshear’s vision is right for families. It’s right for our commonwealth,” the Courier Journal said.

Legislative Races

Of the four states holding legislative contests this year, three — Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana — are holding elections for both the state House and Senate. In the fourth, New Jersey, only representation in the state General Assembly is being contested.

At present all but the New Jersey General Assembly is Republican-controlled.

General elections in Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia will take place on Nov. 5. Louisiana will also hold a primary election on November 5, where candidates can win an election outright.

In cases where no candidate wins the primary outright, general elections in Louisiana will take place on Nov. 16, the same day as the gubernatorial runoff.

The next odd-year elections will take place after that redistricting occurs, so legislators elected this year will be responsible for the redistricting process.

After an analysis of each of the races, Ballotpedia is projecting that both Louisiana and Virginia will likely have a divided government next year, though it does say there’s a moderate chance Virginia could wind up with both a Democratic governor and a Democratically-controlled statehouse after this election.

Ballotpedia is also predicting Republicans will retain control of the state legislature in Mississippi, while Democrats will do the same in New Jersey.

That said, it has identified three state legislative battlegrounds that could make all the difference: the Louisiana House of Representatives, Virginia State Senate, and Virginia House of Delegates.

Control of eight seats in the Louisiana state House is on the ballot in the November 16, 2019, general election. If Republicans win all seven races where they are on the ballot, the party will win a supermajority in the chamber.

Heading into the election, Republicans hold a two-seat majority in both Virginia chambers. The Virginia State Senate has had a 2-seat or smaller majority (including several years as a tied chamber) since 2007.

In the Virginia House of Delegates, Democrats picked up 15 seats in 2017, and only a Republican win in a tiebreaker of random chance in District 94 kept Republicans from losing control of the chamber.

Ballotpedia defines battleground chambers as those it anticipates will be, overall, more competitive than other chambers and have the potential to see significant shifts in party control in the 2019 general elections.

Ballot Initiatives

Voters in six states will weigh in on a total of 20 statewide ballot measures that address issues ranging from bond issues to criminal justice to taxes.

Of these, two, in Washington state, are citizens initiatives that garnered enough signatures to quality to be put on the ballot. The majority of the rest are legislative referendums that originated as bills, but now require voter ratification before they can become law.

In Colorado, one ballot measure asks voters to approve a 10% tax on sports wagering, while another asks for voter permission to allocate budget surpluses in any given year to transportation and education projects. Currently, under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights law in Colorado, the keeping of any surplus revenue is prohibited.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, this is only the second time since 1992 that Colorado has asked voters to amend the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights law.

Meanwhile one of Washington’s citizens initiatives, Initiative 976, would fix the so-called “car tab” fee at $30 annually for vehicles under 10,000 pounds, and would remove local government’s authority to approve certain taxes and charges on vehicles. A car tab is the registration sticker put on license plates to show the month and year when the registration will expire. In recent years, 62 municipalities have raised car tab fees substantially to fund transportation districts.

Louisiana and Texas have multiple measures on the ballot that fall into the tax category, including tax exemptions for landlords, precious metals and materials destined for the Outer Continental Shelf, as well as funding for education, cancer research, and flood infrastructure.

New Jersey is proposing a property tax deduction for veterans who reside in continuing care communities.

In Pennsylvania, voters are being asked to approve Marsy’s Law, which aims to guarantee that crime victims are provided “timely information” and given “a voice in the criminal justice process.”

However, according to NCSL’s Anne Teigen, the law has received “criticism, opposition and resistance in many states.” Since 2017, the supreme courts of two states, Montana and Kentucky, have declared the measures unconstitutional.

In Kansas, the legislature has referred a measure to voters that would end the state’s process for removing nonresident military personnel and nonresident students from census data used for redistricting.

“Kansas stands alone as the only state that removes both military and students from the data that they use for redistricting, and if approved, this measure would put Kansas with the vast majority of states on this issue,” NCSL’s Wendy Underhill said.

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