Beneath the radar: the balance of power in state legislatures

The pitched battle for control of Congress has consumed political attention across the country. But analysts say a more telling litmus test of the national mood, and policy dreams, may lie elsewhere: in state legislatures.

With considerable power flowing to the states since President Reagan and the New Federalism, the states have become first-line incubators of new ideas and the breeding ground of future national players. This year, because of term limits and redistricting, an unusually high turnover of seats – 25 to 30 percent – is imminent. Just as in the nation's capital, where both houses of Congress are split nearly 50-50, so, too, are the state legislatures.

Tuesday's vote could break the deadlock and set the grooves that could dominate states for years.

"There's an awful lot at stake for both parties, far more than usual," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

In 18 states, both chambers are controlled by the Democrats, 17 states are both Republican-controlled, and 14 are split. (One, Nebraska, is nonpartisan.) Of 7,424 seats, 51 percent are Democratic, 49 percent Republican.

With so many open seats to vie for, the political field is crowded with new faces. One is Ross Hunter, a retired Microsoft executive in his early 40s, who says he's never run for anything in his life – "not even junior high class president." But he's jazzed about his race for the state legislature in Washington, where Democrats control the House 50 to 48.

Education "is the thing that made me crazy enough to do this," says Mr. Hunter, a Democrat who hopes to represent suburban Bellevue, Wash., (including Bill Gates). Other big issues, he says, are transportation and the state budget. "Bush and Iraq don't come up," Hunter says.

Washington is one of three states where control of both chambers hangs in the balance. Nationally, the legislature votes are so close that in 25 states, a shift of only four seats or fewer could alter the party dominance of at least one chamber. Going back to 1938, the average number of state chambers shifting parties per election is 12. Most experts think the number this year will be far higher.

All told, 85 percent of seats are up for grabs nationwide. (Four states – Mississippi, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Virginia – elect legislatures in off-years.) With most districts in the country redrawn in the past 18 months, incumbents and newcomers alike are having to learn new territory and constituents – as well as face new challengers.

"Every 10 years, you get a fair amount of uncertainty in the electoral system," says Gary Moncrief, a political scientist at Boise State University in Idaho.

All of this means the possibility of more new ideas and new agendas. Thirty-six states are also electing governors – and several large states look poised for a change of executive control, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. New possibilities for split government (governor of one party, legislature of another) arise around the country, bringing tension that could either spark creativity – or grind into gridlock.

"Who sits in the governor's chairs will help dictate how well or not these new party-controlled legislatures will be able to get their agendas through, and how they can obstruct those governors," says Arturo Perez, an analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

If high turnover and a flood of new faces is easy to predict for Tuesday's vote, an overarching national theme is less so. National pollsters say healthcare, the economy, education, and crime have crept back to the top of the list. Just as the nationwide welfare reform of the '90s began as a state-by-state innovation, now many states are making changes in prescription drug benefits ahead of Congress, where the issue is gridlocked.

"The biggest concern now is that after years of budget surpluses, states are having to make cutbacks across the board," says the NCSL's Tim Storey.

The other big question that may be answered at the state level is whether President Bush's electioneering helps or hinders GOP chances. Since 1940, the president's party has lost legislative seats in every midterm election – usually an average of 350 seats. But Bush's approval ratings remain high, around 60 percent.

"We're expecting help from the top down," says Tom Hofeller, redistricting director for the Republican National Committee. He says the GOP has come out of redistricting battles in several states in the best shape "in decades." But he stops short of bold predictions of Republican success. "The statehouses are currently so closely balanced that, although there will be lots of changes, the overall balance between Democrats and Republicans will not be radically changed," he says.

Some analysts see the vote for state legislatures as a referendum on the parties, since many voters don't know the candidates or their positions. One Democratic National Committee official contests the notion that the vote is a referendum on Bush. "This is about local politics, not national," he says. He notes that when Virginia and New Jersey held legislative elections in 2001 – two months after 9/11– the main issues were economy and education, not terrorism.

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