States Mirror National Picture With Close Election Races


Bubbling beneath the surface of today's high-stakes presidential election is a cauldron of state races that could have an equally striking impact on the nation's political future.

Forty-four states feature legislative contests, and 42 states have at least one citizen initiative or legislative referendum on the ballot. Voters in eleven states will choose governors.

Governors' contests

Voters in Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia may wake up to news of new governors on Wednesday morning.

Three incumbents, Frank O'Bannon (D-Ind.), Mike Leavitt (R-Utah) and Gary Locke (D-Wash.) all appear easy favorites for re-election. Vermont's Howard Dean (D) is still likely to win over repeat GOP challenger Ruth Dwyer despite gains she's made due to passage of a Vermont law that gives gay and lesbian partners many of the same legal rights as married couples.

But Dean's incumbent colleagues Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Cecil Underwood (R-W.Va.) are fighting to keep their jobs. Polls released Sunday found Shaheen running neck-and-neck with Republican challenger Gordon Humphrey, who is buoyed by his attack on Shaheen's response to the state's school funding crisis.

In West Virginia, Underwood and Democratic rival Rep. Bob Wise are campaigning feverishly in a race still too close to call. Democrats are pulling out all stops to defeat Underwood, a Republican power in a overwhelmingly Democratic state. The dead heat even drew Sen. Robert Byrd into a rare series of stump appearances on Wise's behalf.

Open seats in Missouri, Montana and North Dakota are also fiercely contested.

  • Missouri Gov. Roger Wilson's decision not to run for the state's top office preceded the death of his popular predecessor, Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed last month in a plane crash. Carnahan's posthumous campaign against Senate incumbent John Ashcroft (R) has all but crowded the gubernatorial race between Democratic state Treasurer Bob Holden and Republican Rep. Jim Talent out of the camera's eye. But that race is just as tight in a state considered by many to be the most hotly contested of this election cycle.
  • In Montana, voters will decide who will replace outgoing Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, Lt. Gov. Judy Martz (R) or Democratic state auditor Mark O'Keefe. O'Keefe has echoed challenges to Martz's leadership first raised during the Republican primary, but Martz has painted O'Keefe as that most hated of Western political villains, an advocate of big government. She has had some help from Racicot, who asked the state attorney general to investigate an O'Keefe project less than a week before the election.
  • In North Dakota, Republican John Hoeven, a champion of the state's business interests, and Democratic Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp are locked in a dead-even battle to replace departing Republican Gov. Ed Schafer. Heitkamp got an unusual boost from September announcements that she was battling breast cancer, but it was not enough to generate a decisive lead over Hoeven, the former president of the Bank of North Dakota.

Legislative Balance

With control over congressional redistricting looming as the prize plum, the party balance in the fifty statehouses is remarkably close. Democrats hold both houses of the legislature in 19 states, the Republicans 17. Thirteen legislatures are split between the parties. Of these, six work with a Republican governor, six with a Democrat, and the last, Minnesota, with an Independent. Nebraska's unicameral legislature is non-partisan.

"While the national political outlook of state legislatures will stay the same, there could be significant changes in pieces of the political landscape," said National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) executive director William Pound.

According to NCSL, 5,918 legislative seats, or 80 percent of the national total, are in play. The two parties are locked in a tie for control of the Pennsylvania House, the Washington House and the New Hampshire Senate, with all seats up for grabs in each state.

If Democrats gain control of the Keystone State's lower chamber, Republicans would have to blame only themselves. A series of scandals and resignations whittled their slim, three-seat margin down to zero in recent months.

The balance is nearly as delicate in seven other states. A shift of three seats or fewer could trigger a changeover of party power in the senates of Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.

Ballot Initiatives

In Oregon, citizens have the weighty task of plodding through the 26 separate statewide ballot measures that have fattened the voter information guide to a staggering 376 pages. Over half of the measures concern state finances, but Oregonians will also decide whether to ban bilingual education and public instruction that encourages homosexuality as well as whether to compensate landowners for property value lost due to state land use policies.

Elsewhere, voters face a considerably less daunting task, at least as far as numbers go, but in many cases the issues are just as powerful. Voters will make decisions on a record number of education measures like voucher programs in Michigan and California, charter schools in Washington and a ban on bilingual instruction in Arizona. Tax and revenue matters are on the ballot in at least 12 states.

Other hot issues include:

  • Proposals to ban homosexual marriages in Nebraska and Nevada.
  • Approval of marijuana for medical use in California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Utah.
  • Decisions on how to spend the tobacco settlement in Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah.
  • Sprawl regulations such as urban boundaries proposed in Arizona and Colorado.
  • A variety of hunting and animal protection measures in several states, including Alaska, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota and Virginia.
  • A ban on physician-assisted suicide in Maine.
  • An initiative to make English the official language of state government in Utah.

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