One of the most important election battles of 1986 has gone almost unnoticed. Forty-six states today will elect 6,270 men and women to serve in their legislatures. Although unheralded, these races will be a harbinger of the future strength of the Republican and Democratic Parties.
Democrats, who are stronger at the grass-roots level of American politics, outnumber Republicans by more than a 4-to-3 margin in the nation's legislatures. But the GOP has fought back with all its resources this year.
The big question for Republicans: Can the party extend its new popularity at the national level, personified by President Reagan, to the local level of government?
All of this has national significance.
Most important, in 1991 the states will reapportion the districts for the United States House of Representatives. That process is controlled by the legislatures and the governors. If either party has total control of state government, it can shape those districts to its political advantage.
The 1990 census will probably require that 17 House seats be shifted from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt. Dozens of districts will have to be redrawn - for example, in New York (expected to lose 3 to 5 seats), Michigan (expected to lose 3 seats), Florida (expected to gain 3 to 4 seats), and California (expected to gain 5 seats).
This process is so important that both parties have already devoted millions of dollars and thousands of staff hours to prepare for redistricting.
There are two other reasons that the state races are vital.
State legislatures serve as ``farm teams'' for the political parties. Young politicians and campaign managers cut their teeth on state races, and gain the expertise to run for higher office.
State politicians have also become a primary source of new ideas for both major parties. Washington, under Mr. Reagan, has pulled away from new programs. That has left the states to serve as laboratories for the new concepts now being tried in government.
This struggle for local power focuses on three major areas: the Midwest, the Northeast, and the South. In the Midwest and Northeast, the two parties are vying for control of nearly a dozen senate and house chambers in such states as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
In the South, the GOP is trying to hold its gains of recent years, though it remains very much in the minority all across the old Confederacy.
Michigan and Pennsylvania share the brightest spotlight this year.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats hold a tenuous 101-to-100 margin in the House, and they could lose that today. The outcome probably depends on the strength of the Democratic candidates for the United States Senate and the governorship. Poor performances by those two candidates could pull down a lot of Democratic legislative candidates with them.
In Michigan, it is Republicans who could lose control of the state Senate, where they have a 20-to-18 margin. Control of the Michigan Senate has shifted between the parties in recent years.
Down South, Republicans aren't even close to control of either the House or Senate in any state. But the party has made gains recently, expecially in Texas and North Carolina. A lot of effort is going into holding those gains this year.
Republicans are targeting two major voter groups to expand their local base.
In the South, the GOP is wooing white Democrats, who are switching to the Republican Party at a substantial rate in some parts of Dixie.
In the Northeast and Midwest, Republicans are courting working-class whites who are alarmed by crime, illegal drugs (especially crack), abortion, and a declining standard of living in areas that are heavily dependent on factory jobs.
Ordinarily, in a midterm election, the party out of power in the White House (the Democrats this year) would gain about 200 seats.