Election Paves Way for Deep Divides in Statehouses

 

Early results indicate that the Republican Party lost some of the ground it gained in state legislative races in 2002 and that the 2004 elections have deepened the political divide in statehouses.

Democrats and Republicans pulled out a number of close but concrete victories in the 44 states that held elections, flipping political control in at least 10 legislative chambers. Power in two legislatures the Maine Senate and Oregon House was riding on the outcome of races still too close to call.

Pending final outcomes of those races, party control for 2005 stands at near even. Republicans will control both chambers in 19 states, Democrats will control both chambers in 19states, and power will be split between the parties in 11 states. Nebraska has a non-partisan, unicameral Legislature.

Democrats have regained control of at least one legislature. Prior to the election, the GOP held power in both chambers in 21 states, Democrats in 17, and power was divided in 11 legislatures. The National Conference of State Legislatures projects that a historic 64-seat advantage that Republicans earned in nationwide legislative races in 2002 may be whittled down to about a 15-seat edge.

"The parties are still in a perpetual game of political tug-of-war," said Tim Storey, an elections expert at NCSL. "For the past three years, one side will move the flag an inch, only to lose that ground the next election. It is hard to imagine this parity could get any tighter, but it appears that it has."

The delicate balance of power has heavy bearing on state legislative agendas and also influences how a governor's policies play out on statewide issues that can directly impact citizens' daily lives.

Based on incomplete results compiled by NCSL, Democrats snatched the majorities from Republicans in at least six chambers: both the Colorado House and Senate, the North Carolina House, Oregon Senate, Vermont House and Washington Senate. However, the margin of victory was only one seat in both of the Colorado chambers and the Washington Senate, and NCSL said a handful of recounts are expected.

"Democrats can take some little comfort in these results, because at every other level they've had ... significant losses," said political science professor Alan Rothstein at Rutgers University. "The lesson, which is obvious and banal, is that the country is really divided."

Surprising political observers, Colorado Democrats overcame a nine-seat deficit in the House to take a one-seat majority for control of the lower chamber; Democrats were down one seat in the Senate and now are up one. The power shift may be a sign that Republican Gov. Bill Owen's political star is fading, said John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University. He said the one-seat edge in House leadership may spark a fresh effort to eliminate the state's constitutional cap on state taxes and spending, but any such attempt would likely face an uphill battle.

Offsetting those GOP setbacks, however, the Republican Party gained legislative ground in the South. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans will control both houses of the Georgia Legislature; the GOP captured control of the House on Election Day and kept its edge in the Georgia Senate, which it took over in 2002 when four Democratic legislators switched parties. Republicans also won the majority in the Tennessee Senate.

In Oklahoma, where new term limits went into effect this year, the state House switched party control from Democrats to Republicans for the first time since 1922. And Republicans had a big night in Indiana, capturing control of both the legislative and executive branches while also endorsing President George W. Bush. Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels (R) will be welcomed by a newly Republican-controlled House; the Senate kept its GOP majority.

Two state senates may start the new year in a tie. The contest for control of the Iowa Senate, where Republicans held an eight-seat advantage, is headed for a historic 25-25 tie, according to The Des Moines Register. The Montana Senate now also sits at 25 seats for each party.

Meanwhile, Democrats retained advantages in a number of states and managed to pick up a few key seats in states where Republicans still reign.

For example, Democrats kept a firm grip on the Legislature in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) failed to translate his celebrity and popularity into gains for his party. Schwarzenegger raised money and made eleventh-hour sweeps through the Golden State to stump for Republican legislative candidates.

In New York, backed by a cash infusion from billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Democrats picked up two seats in the Republican-controlled state Senate and two seats in the Assembly, which they already control by a large margin.

Democratic control of southern statehouses continues to slip because the party has fallen out of step with conservative views on moral and social issues, said Alex Johnson, director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. The RLCC is a tax-exempt "527" group that supports GOP legislators across the country.

Ballot initiatives outlawing same-sex marriage in Oklahoma and Georgia also may have contributed to GOP gains in those states, Johnson said.

Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a 527 group that supports statehouse Democrats, agreed that his party's candidates have not done well in socially conservative states. "The environments were very bad for us in places where we lost," he said.

Which party will wield control of at least two legislative chambers is still unknown. The Maine Senate, already split between 18 Democrats and 17 Republicans, is waiting for late results from one race that will determine which party gets the majority next session. Results were also pending for the Oregon House.

Republicans managed to hang on to slim majorities in states such as Wisconsin. The GOP retained a three-seat advantage and control of the state Senate but didn't earn the veto-proof majority they'd hoped for, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

At least eight of the 11 legislative battlegrounds NCSL identified before the election switched control. Those chambers were: Colorado Senate, Georgia House, Indiana House, Montana House, North Carolina House, Oklahoma House, Oregon House, Vermont House and Washington Senate. The Washington House did not switch, and control of the Maine Senate remains up in the air.

Republicans had made steady gains in state legislatures for the past 25 years, slowly eroding Democratic power. Coming into the 5,800 legislative elections held in 44 states yesterday, the GOP held a slim advantage nationally. Six states Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia did not hold statehouse elections Nov. 2.

 
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