In many states, control of legislatures at stake

The GOP has fought its way to almost perfect parity with Democrats. A five-seat swing could tip control in 28 chambers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Beneath the polarized rhetoric on the national level, a battle is under way for control of state legislatures that are already as divided as at any time in history.

In many states, the change of just a few seats could tip the balance of power. And the outcome could be a harbinger of the future political climate: Nationwide the GOP has made significant gains in the past 20 years on the state level - capturing a majority of legislative seats in 2002 for the first time in half a century.

The candidates may not be household names - even if they are running in your district. But from Maine to Oregon, these races are being decided on local issues that affect everything from the amount of taxes residents pay to where their drinking water comes from.

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"It's as tight as bark on a tree," says Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The stuff that matters at the state level is the stuff that matters to people - like building schools, hiring teachers, building roads ... and healthcare."

On the outskirts of Augusta, Me., front lawns have turned into political gardens. Some signs protrude from the earth in support of presidential candidates. Many others illustrate a tight local race, where Democrats hold an 18-17 majority in the state senate.

As in other parts of the country, it is jobs and taxes that dominate in this state. And some voters see Republicans as doing the best job addressing these issues. This reflects, in part, an effort by Republicans to recast themselves as competent fiscal managers in times of economic trouble, say experts.

Though he's an independent, Everard Stevens tends to vote Republican at the local level - choosing those candidates who have more of "a business bent."

"Maine is a depressed place," says Mr. Stevens, an accountant who works parttime in Augusta. "I'd like to see the legislature made up of folks who will bring a lot more jobs into the state."

Maine, Oregon, and Colorado are among the states where both the presidential and state legislature races are close. Nationwide about 80 percent of total seats in the legislatures - made up of some 5,800 seats in 44 states with elections this November - are in play.

Current balance of power

The GOP holds a slim edge at the moment: Of 7,382 seats, they control 60 more than Democrats. In this election, there are 28 chambers where a switch of a handful of seats - three state senate seats or five state house seats - would alter party control.

"Our two parties today are poles apart," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "If your state senate switches from 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans to 22 Republicans, the change is a lot bigger than those two seats."

While usually further off the radar, these local elections have caught the attention of the national parties: More energy is being spent on state legislative races in this cycle, says Mr. Storey. It is still not a huge operation, he says, but the parties are recognizing the impact that legislatures have on state policymaking. Moreover, state legislatures often act as a training ground for candidates who may some day run for higher offices.

"Republicans have made significant gains [at the state level]," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "That is a trend the Democrats view with real concern."

Local issues may bring some residents to the polls. In Maine, a proposed property tax referendum has galvanized voters. In Colorado, the budget and water supplies are central. But more likely, the presidential race will boost local races in the so-called coattail effect, says Mr. Sabato.

States as laboratories

Still, the states are where new policies are tested. In Maine, the legislature passed an innovative expansion of healthcare, says Marvin Druker, a political scientist at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn campus. It has not yet been implemented. In other states, amendments on gay marriage, abortion rights, and prescription drug imports have been hammered out where there has been little movement at the federal level.

Republicans control both legislative chambers in 21 states, Democrats control both in 17 states. Power is divided in 11 states. Nebraska has a unicameral and officially nonpartisan legislature.

If the GOP continues the trend of gaining power in the state legislatures, some political scientists say, it could be a sign of a needed realignment within the Democratic Party, says Michael Kanner, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Mr. Schier agrees. Even in Minnesota, he says, Democrats have narrowed their message, moving further to the left on certain issues like abortion. "It is one of the reasons for their competitive disadvantage," he says. "If they want to win elections, they'll need a much broader tent."

Despite how tight the race is at the local level, Claudia Burmeister, dining at Java Joe's in Augusta, says the national elections have just overshadowed the state senate race.

Her friend, Linda Kennedy, agrees. She talks to the candidates, visits their websites, and helps her neighbors understand ballot issues and get to the polls. She is also throwing a party at her house to celebrate her daughter's first election in which she can vote.

But she is an anomaly, both women agree. As an employment specialist, Ms. Kennedy says that jobs that pay a living wage in the area have declined and that many of her neighbors are struggling. Still, many don't pay attention to the elections.

"It's frustrating," says Kennedy. "Most people have no idea what [some of the initiatives] are even about."

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