Statehouse Races: Overlooked, Not Overrated
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
The presidential race may get top billing, but elections for 5,804 state legislative seats this November won't lack for drama.
A shift of just three seats would bring a change of political control in 25 legislative chambers in 22 states. Throw in new legislative boundaries brought about by the 2000 census plus term limits in a handful of states and this November's statehouse elections are shaping up to be nail biters for both parties.
"It's a major legislative election year," said Tim Storey, an elections expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The war for control of state policy will largely be fought in legislative chambers," Storey said.
The Republican Party goes into the November elections controlling legislatures in 21 states while Democrats hold power in 17. The Republicans look to build on the gains of the 2002 elections in which the GOP won the majority of legislative seats for the first time in 50 years. Democrats hope to put the brakes on a 25-year skid in which they've steadily lost seats.
Only 11 of the 50 governors' seats are up this November (in Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia), but nearly 80 percent of the 7,382 state legislative offices are on the ballots this fall. All but six states Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey and Virginia have legislative elections in November. Nebraska is unusual in that its one chamber is officially "nonpartisan" because candidates run without political labels.
One of the most competitive races will be in Oregon where the Senate is tied 15-15 and 15 seats are up in November. Among other close state Senate races to watch: Colorado, Washington and Wisconsin, all of which the GOP currently controls by three-seat margins or less, and Maine and Tennessee, where Democrats hold power by slim margins. "There's a real distinct possibility that you could see shifts in majority status on the Senate side in some of these states," said Gary Moncrief, political science professor at Boise State University in Idaho.
House races to watch include Indiana and Oklahoma, where Democrats have control, and the GOP-controlled houses in Montana and North Carolina.
In three states Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina the creation of new legislative boundaries is mired in litigation, making the races even harder to call. In Arizona, candidates still don't know which districts they will run in or who their opponents might be. "We have no idea which set of lines we will be using," said Bill Christiansen, a spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party. The GOP has a slim 17-13 edge in the Senate. In the House, 39 Republicans outnumber the 20 Democrats and one Independent.
Newly drawn district maps in Georgia could widen the GOP lead in the Senate, but may not be enough to give Republicans control of the state House, said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. Republicans have a 30-26 margin in the Senate but trail in the House, where Democrats have a 107-72 majority. The new maps make for interesting races. For example, state Sen. Hugh M. Gillis (D), the longest serving senator in office, finds himself squaring off against Sen. Jack Hill (R), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to represent the 4th district.
Republicans in North Carolina continue to challenge new district maps even though the GOP is expected to pick up additional seats in both chambers under the new lines. Republicans are expected to add to their 61-59 lead in the House, but likely won't garner enough to take over the Senate, where Democrats currently control 28-22, said Ted Arrington, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
A landslide victory for Bush may provide more GOP wins at the state level, he said.
New term-limit laws could play a huge role in determining which party wields control in a few states. This year marks the first time that term limits kick in for state lawmakers in Oklahoma. That means 28 current representatives and 14 senators can't run again. Democrats currently cling to a 53-48 control of the House and hold a 28-20 margin in the Senate.
Term-limit laws that were passed in the 1990s in Arkansas, Maine and Michigan could force at least 30 percent of the legislators out of their jobs in those states, said Moncrief of Boise State. Politicians in these states were elected just as term limits were enacted and are now being pushed out.
Iraq and the economy may be on voters' minds in national elections, but at the state level, education and state budgets are expected to rank among voters' top issues. Taxes will figure prominently in Alabama and Oregon where voters rejected tax-hike proposals. How incumbents voted on the tax question likely will drive some races there.
Gay marriage, a topic that was not on many radar screens just a few months ago, remains a big question mark. "Will [gay marriage] still be as relevant an election-year issue three months from now? It's hard to say," NCSL's Storey said.