Originally, I had planned to discuss in more detail the race between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. However, I was reminded that the presidential election is not the only important race we should pay attention to in 2016. While most Americans see the president as the most influential government official, the reality is that most laws enacted in the United States are passed in state legislatures.
In 2014, state legislatures passed over 24,000 new laws, as compared to the 181 passed by the 113th Congress. The issue is that, while legislators wield significant influence, many voters don’t pay much attention to them; I’m sure most Americans cannot name their state representative or state senator. In addition, all members of the US House and 34 Senate seats will be up for election. These positions have been frequently overlooked this election cycle.
In the interest of brevity, I will focus only on the Minnesota legislature for this piece, but will compare my analysis to the nation as a whole. In Minnesota, all 134 seats in the House of Representatives and all 67 seats in the Senate are up for election. As it is currently comprised, the House is controlled by the Republicans by 12 seats and the Senate is controlled by the Democratic Farmer Laborers (DFL) by 11 seats. In 2012, the Republicans lost their majority in the Senate — correlated to high voter turnout for Democratic President Barack Obama. This was the first Senate majority for the GOP in decades. Political scientists argue that higher voter turnout in the state favors the Democrats. The primary process thus far is currently expected to negatively affect rural incumbents, as those districts will become the state’s “battleground” districts.
I argue that the victorious party in Minnesota will be based on three paths. The first path follows Ted Cruz vs. Hillary Clinton. In this case, Hillary will not be able to capture the same enthusiasm as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, with many Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats who supported Sanders, choosing to stay home on election day. This phenomenon will favor Republicans on the ballot, leading to GOP retention of the House and the possible, albeit unlikely, capturing of a GOP majority in the Senate.
The second path follows Trump as the GOP nominee against Clinton. With Trump as the nominee, Democrats, as well as many establishment Republicans, will go to the polls with intentions of voting against Trump. This scenario would be detrimental to down-the-ballot Republicans, especially those in competitive districts. The Senate would remain 100 percent under DFL control with many seats gained. The House would very likely switch to DFL control.
The third path, the most straightforward one, is a Bernie Sanders nomination. In Minnesota, a very liberal state, Sanders would have the potential to ignite some, although not all, of the enthusiasm President Obama did. The DFL would keep the Senate and either gain ground in the House or take control of it. The Minnesota GOP’s only shot at having a successful election day lies with a nominee that is not Trump.
I used Minnesota as an example for the possible outcomes of the still undetermined nominees. However, aside from the third pathway, this scenario would be similar in many states, especially battleground states. Ted Cruz won’t hurt down-the-ballot Republicans, and if he did, he wouldn’t do so significantly. Trump would destroy the chances of many Republican candidates keeping their seats or winning in competitive districts nationwide. This is as true for elections in state legislatures as it is for the 12 upcoming gubernatorial elections, as it is for elections in the US Congress.
Many national lawmakers hold legitimate fears that a potential Trump nomination would be disastrous for Republicans down the ballot. In Minnesota, for example, US Representative Erik Paulsen’s (R) district would be in contention under a Trump nomination. Paulsen has held his seat since 2009, with high favorability ratings, and the district has been under Republican representation since 1961.
All 435 seats of the US House of Representatives as well as 34 seats in the US Senate are up for grabs in 2016. While it remains unlikely that the Democrats will capture a majority in the US House, even with a Trump nomination, the US Senate would be up for grabs. Republicans have 54 seats to the Democrats’ 44, and two seats are independent, however the independents caucus with the Democrats. 24 Republican seats and 10 Democratic seats are up for election. With a Trump nomination driving Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans to the polls, it seems very likely that the GOP would lose its control of the Senate.
If Hillary Clinton were to win the presidency over Trump, while also seeing Democrats take control of the Senate, it would devastate the Republican Party. President Clinton could nominate any justice she wanted, possibly one more liberal justice than Merrick Garland, to the Supreme Court to replace Scalia and any other future vacancies. Former constitutional law professor Barack Obama would be a reasonable nominee for Clinton to put forward, but that’s just speculation.
The main point is that the name at the top of the ballot wields power in American elections, as it has the ability to drive people to the polls or dissatisfy them enough to stay home. A Trump nomination would do damage to the Republican Party in more areas than just presidential prospects. Across the country, in all levels of government, Republicans would face an uphill battle at winning elections or maintaining relevance. GOP candidates would have to choose whether or not to support their party’s nominee. In the best interest of their reelection and the prospects of the GOP, many will let go of Trump’s coattails and choose to go rogue.