Republicans Make History in State Legislative Races

 

After 50 years of being the national minority party, Republicans elected more state legislators than Democrats for the first time since 1954 on Tuesday by a razor thin margin.

Republicans will control legislatures in five more states than Democrats next year, the widest margin they've had since before 1938.

Bucking a 64-year trend that the President's party loses an average of 350 statehouse seats in the midterm election, the GOP picked up about 200 seats, with big gains in New Hampshire and Texas.

"The White House has reason to celebrate," said Tim Storey, election analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "It was a good night for Republicans."

Democrats have been losing legislative seats on the state level for 25 years. In 1976, Democrats held nearly 70 percent of legislative seats, but after the election, the parties are split almost 50-50.

Pending official certification, the NCSL reports that Republicans lead Democrats in legislative seats 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent. This is the first year that Democrats have elected less than 50 percent of state legislators since 1942.

The GOP now controls both chambers of state government in 21 states , up from 17. Democrats now control 16 states, down from 18. In 12 states, neither party has a ruling majority in both chambers, down from 14. Nebraska has a nominally non-partisan but Republican-dominated unicameral legislature.

Political control of at least nine legislative chambers changed hands, fewer than the historic average of 12.

In at least 22 states, both legislative chambers and the governor's office are now controlled by one political party. For example, Republicans will control South Carolina and Texas. In one bright spot for the Democrats, the party took over the Illinois Senate for the first time since 1977, thanks to favorable redistricting, and won the governor's office.

Republicans next year also will control: 

  • The Texas House, for the first time since 1870
  • The Arizona Senate, which was previously tied
  • The Colorado Senate, which slipped to Democratic control in 2000 for the first time in 38 years
  • The Missouri House, for the first time since 1955
  • The Wisconsin Senate.

Why does it matter? The balance of power in state legislatures often signals how successful a governor's policies will be. The results also are strong evidence of the national political mood, political experts said.

Some Republican state legislators say that President George W. Bush's high popularity rating gave them a boost in this election.

"The president demonstrated some dramatic leadership this last year in a number of ways, not the least of which has been the way that he's been out campaigning this past month," said Utah's Republican speaker of the house, Martin R. Stevens. "He really put his personal popularity at risk for the Republican cause."

And with devolution increasing the flow of power to the states from the federal government, state legislatures have become the breeding ground for new ideas, innovative policies, and future federal lawmakers.

"A lot of activity takes place in state governments," said Tom Hofeller, redistricting director for the Republican National Committee. "Many programs percolate up to the federal level, so in some ways state legislatures are the laboratories from which a lot of federal programs are created."

With more than 6,000 of the 7,382 of the nation's legislative seats at stake on election day, the 2002 election will result in the highest turnover of seats ever. Twenty-four percent of seats changed hands even before Election Day as legislators were removed by term limits, primary losses, or retirement. In an average year, 18 percent of seats turn over.

A symptom of the voters' mood came in Georgia where the longest-serving House speaker in the country, Tom Murphy, failed to win reelection.

Maryland's long-serving General Assembly Speaker, Democrat Casper Taylor, was also sent packing by the voters.

Experts attributed the increase in legislative turnover to the effects of redistricting and term limits. With the exception of two states Maine and Montana- every state legislative district has been redrawn in the past 18 months based on 2000 census data. Term limits prevented 330 legislators in 11 states from running.

In the six chambers where party control shifted (Illinois Senate, Texas House, Arizona Senate, Colorado Senate, Wisconsin Senate, Missouri House), redistricting plans were drawn by a commission or court, said Gary Moncrief, political scientist at Boise State University in Idaho. In most other states, the legislature controlled redistricting.

"That says something about the party in power being able to protect itself through the redistricting process," said Moncrief.

Redistricting also triggered a high number of retirements. In Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, where courts, independent commissions or nonpartisan legislative staff drew redistricting plans, many incumbents, paired with other incumbents in the same district, chose to retire.

Term limits hit two legislative chambers especially hard: the Michigan Senate, where 71 percent of the current members were ineligible to run for re-election, and the Missouri House, where almost half of its representatives were term limited.

Oklahoma State Sen. Angela Monson, NCSL president, said, "Things are tight at the state legislature, it's still 50-50. But state legislatures are still extremely effective in identifying the critical issues facing families and businesses in this country. It doesn't matter who controls the chamber."

 
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