A look at historical data on midterms and state legislative elections

Welcome to the Tuesday, March 8, Brew. 

By: Douglas Kronaizl

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. A look at changes in state legislative seats during a president’s first midterm election
  2. Previewing Milwaukee’s April 5 mayoral special election
  3. Newcomers will win more than half of Nebraska state Senate districts up for election this year

A look at changes in state legislative seats during a president’s first midterm election

The 2022 election cycle is the first midterm election of Joe Biden’s (D) presidency. Historically, the incumbent president’s party loses seats in state legislative elections. Here are a few historical facts.

  • Since 1922, Democratic presidents have seen their party lose an average of 388 state legislative seats in their first midterm elections. Republican presidents have seen an average loss of 345.
  • Two presidents in that time—Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) and George W. Bush (R)—saw their parties gain state legislative seats in the first midterm elections of their presidencies. In Roosevelt’s first midterm election in 1934 during the Great Depression, Democrats gained 94 state legislative seats. During Bush’s presidency, Republicans gained 129 seats in the 2002 midterms, the first after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
  • Since 2010, Democrats have had a net gain of state legislative seats in two election cycles—2012 and 2018—while Republicans have had a net gain in three—2014, 2016, and 2020. 
  • Barack Obama (D) saw a net loss of 702 Democratic state legislative seats during his first midterm in 2010, the largest loss for any Democratic president since at least 1921. 
  • Donald Trump (R) saw a net loss of 349 Republican state legislative seats in 2018.

Currently, there are 3,271 Democratic state legislators (44%) and 4,016 Republicans (54%).

The chart below shows the overall net changes in state legislative seats during the first midterm election of each presidency. Partisan totals represent those as a result of regularly-scheduled elections. The totals do not include any special elections or other changes that may occur between elections. Some presidencies were combined in the event of a resignation or death in office.

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Previewing Milwaukee’s April 5 mayoral special election

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at a lot of statewide races, but let’s shift gears and take a look at a local race we are watching closely this year.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is holding a special general election for mayor on April 5, which was called after Mayor Tom Barrett (D) resigned on Dec. 22, 2021, to become the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Voters will decide between Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Common Councilman Robert Donovan, both of whom advanced from a seven-way primary on Feb.15 with 42% and 22% of the vote, respectively.

Wisconsin Public Radio’s Corrinne Hess wrote that the special election “could mean a historic change for Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s largest city could have its first elected Black mayor, or with Donovan, have a conservative leader for the first time.”

Both candidates have served on Milwaukee’s Common Council. 

Johnson was first elected to the council in 2016. In 2020, council members elected him as council president. Upon Barrett’s resignation, Johnson, as president, also became acting mayor. Donovan served on the council from 2000 until his retirement in 2020. Barrett defeated Donovan in the 2016 mayoral election 70%-30%.

Public safety has played a central role in the race. 

Johnson says his public safety plan is comprehensive and includes measures to prevent violence. Johnson said he led an effort to secure funds for 200 additional police officers while on the council.

Donovan highlighted his 20 years on the Common Council and his past chairmanship of the city’s Public Safety Committee and Anti-Graffiti Policy Committee. Donovan said his public safety plan would increase police staffing and foot and bicycle patrols.

Johnson said Donovan’s plan was outdated. Donovan said the city experienced its worst bout of violence during Johnson’s time as council president.

Ballotpedia is covering 32 mayoral elections in 2022—24 in the 100 largest cities by population and eight in state capitals falling outside of the 100 largest cities. At the start of this year, 62 of the 100 largest cities’ mayors were Democrats, 26 were Republicans, and 11 were independent or nonpartisan. One mayor’s affiliation was unknown. 

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Newcomers will win more than half of Nebraska state Senate districts up for election this year

Thirteen Nebraska state Senate districts, 54% of the total holding elections this year, are open, meaning no incumbent is running for re-election. This guarantees that newcomers to the legislature will represent those districts next year. It is also the largest number of open districts since 2014 when 17 incumbents were term-limited.

The filing deadline for candidates running for state and federal office in 2022 in Nebraska was Feb. 15, 2022. In the state’s unicameral legislature, elections will take place in 24 of the 49 Senate districts.

Nebraska is one of 15 states with term limits for its state legislators. Senators are limited to two consecutive four-year terms. In 2022, two outgoing legislators are retiring while the remaining 11 cannot seek re-election due to term limits.

Here are some other highlights from this year’s filings:

  • Sixty-six candidates filed for the 24 districts, equaling 2.8 candidates per district, the most since at least 2014 when there were 2.7 candidates per district.
  • While Nebraska’s Senate is officially nonpartisan, using publicly available voter information from the state’s Voter Information Lookup, Ballotpedia identified the partisan affiliations of 63 candidates: 17 Democrats, 39 Republicans, three Libertarians, and four registered as nonpartisan.
  • Every Nebraska district uses a single top-two primary where every candidate runs and the two with the most votes advance to the general election. This year 14 primaries (or 58%) are contested. This is the most contested primaries in the state since at least 2014.
  • Incumbents are running in six of those contested primaries, meaning 55% of incumbents seeking re-election. That’s the most incumbents facing contested primaries since at least 2014.

Republicans currently control the Senate representing 32 districts to Democrats’ 17. Nebraska’s state legislative primaries are the fourth in the country, scheduled for May 10.

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