Governor and statehouse races amplify a split nation

Parties shuffled majorities in state legislatures, but GOP retains gubernatorial edge.

There is a former farmer. There's a son of the man who invented McDonald's Styrofoam hamburger boxes. And there is Dino Rossi - or maybe not.

They are among the 11 governors elected Wednesday in a slate of state elections almost completely lost amid the national fixation on Ohio.

But political scientists have often turned to state races to take the true pulse of the country, and Tuesday's elections provided a grass-roots amplification of the nation's partisan split. Of the 11 states that chose governors Tuesday, two switched from Democrats to Republicans, while two flipped the other way - with Washington State still up in the air between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire - leaving Republicans with a 28-to-21 gubernatorial advantage.

Statehouses are even more closely divided. Of the approximately 7,000 partisan state legislative seats in America, Republicans held a roughly 60-seat advantage going into Tuesday's vote - the smallest margin since such statistics were first compiled in 1938. Apparently, that gap has now narrowed further, with Democrats making significant gains outside the South.

"At the end of the day, it appears that it may have gotten even tighter," says Tim Storey, a legislative analyst at the National Conference for State Legislatures in Denver.

Republicans continued their 20-year march through Southern state legislatures, winning historic victories in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Republicans were assured of continuing to hold at least one more chamber nationally than the Democrats.

But key Democratic victories in state legislatures elsewhere provided a counterpoint to failures in national elections. Democrats took back control of both houses of the Colorado legislature as well as the Vermont House and the state Senates in Oregon and Washington.

The regional trends were less apparent in governor's races, but the overall mood was strikingly similar: a nation divided. Four incumbents - two Republicans and two Democrats - won reelection. Two incumbents - one Republican and one Democrat - lost. Of the five open seats, two switched parties, two remained with the incumbent party, and one was too close to call at deadline.

In the most obvious reversal, New Hampshire completed its turn to the blue side by ousting its Republican incumbent and choosing John Lynch, the Democrat who was well-known for rescuing a furniture-making company from the brink of failure. But there was also Montana's Brian Schweitzer. Though perhaps a Democrat in name only - his running mate was a Republican and his platform was to slash government - the former mint and sugar-beet farmer took a seat vacated by a GOP governor.

On the other side is a pair of Republicans aided in no small part by their last names. That Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. would win in Utah is no great surprise. And it didn't hurt that his father has become one of the state's leading philanthropists, donating huge chunks of the fortune he made in the petrochemical industry. Yet he has also made a name for himself, acting as the current Bush administration's trade ambassador for Asia and Africa.

Matt Blunt had also worked his way up to a significant post: Missouri secretary of state. But his primary selling point in his successful bid to become governor was his connection to the Blunt political dynasty, say some observers. His father, Rep. Roy Blunt, is a member of Congress and the House majority whip. His grandfather, Leroy Blunt, served in the state House of Representatives.

"He was running on the Blunt name," says Kenneth Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University.

The one undecided race is perhaps the most peculiar one.

Washington has not elected a Republican governor since 1980. In a state that demands politicians as moderate as its climate, Republicans had too often unearthed candidates more Siberia than Seattle in recent years. But Mr. Rossi "was as saleable a candidate as they're come up with for a long time," says Todd Donovan, a political scientists at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

The result: With 99 percent of precincts reporting by deadline Wednesday, Rossi held an 861-vote lead. Modest though it is, it could presage an even greater Republican hegemony. "The [state] party is at a turning point," says Professor Donovan. "If they go that way [centrist], they could run the show."

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