Quiet Takeover? GOP Poised for State Gains

REPUBLICANS in Washington State smell a revolt. The party that currently controls barely one-third of the seats in the capital, Olympia, may be on the verge of taking over both houses of the state legislature - for the first time in more than a decade.

The potential shift here is emblematic of a quiet revolution brewing in statehouses across the country.

While much attention has been focused on changes likely in Congress and governorships this year, substantial turnover is also expected among lawmakers in some of the nation's largest states.

From Pennsylvania to California, Florida to Michigan, Republicans appear poised to make substantial gains - capturing either one or both houses of the state legislature.

Such a shift would be important. It could change spending priorities and affect issues ranging from taxes to transportation that impact people most directly. State legislatures are often the ``hothouses'' for ideas that end up shaping the national agenda. They are a talent pool for leaders who go on to serve at higher levels.

``In American politics, the ultimate long-term political control isn't here in Washington but out in the state legislatures,'' Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin recently told a Monitor breakfast.

In some states, the momentum is with the Democrats. Colorado's popular Democratic Governor Roy Romer may cost Republicans their narrow control of both houses. But the overall trend is Republican.

Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin could move from split control to having both houses under GOP sway. A senate takeover is possible in California, which would break the Democrats' longtime hold on the overall legislature.

At present, Democrats control both houses in 24 states, Republicans control eight, and the rest are split. Of the 99 total legislative bodies, 65 have Democratic majorities and 33 Republican. Nebraska has a unicameral chamber.

``It looks like Republicans are going to make a lot of gains in gubernatorial races so they'll also probably make substantial gains in state legislatures,'' says Steven Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States in Rochester, N.Y, who predicts at least six chambers will change hands this year.

NANCY RHYME of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver calls it a ``wild-card'' election, with control in 11 senates and in eight house chambers riding on a margin of four seats or less.

Among the states where control hangs in the balance: Alaska, Connecticut, Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, and Vermont.

Though analysts say legislative elections typically hinge on district-level issues, several national forces this year will affect how big the Republican gains are:

The Clinton factor. Even if the president weren't down in popularity, historical patterns say his party will lose ground in this mid-term election, with no presidential race.

``Even as far down as [state] legislative races, Republicans are trying to nationalize the issues, and hang Clinton taxes and spending on Democrats,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

Conservative shift. In 1992, even as they sent Democrat Clinton to the White House, Americans reduced his party's grip on state capitols, tipping five chambers out of Democratic control. This year, Republican voters appear more energized than Democrats.

Washington State is a case in point. In the primary, even with Democrats lured to the polls to choose a candidate for US Senate, Republicans tallied more votes in 59 percent of the legislative races.

The South remains a Democratic stronghold, but ``we're in the process of seeing the South go from knee-jerk Democratic to being competitive and perhaps eventually going solidly Republican,'' Mr. Gold says.

Throw 'em out. The anti-incumbent mood varies from state to state. Sixteen have gone so far as to pass term limits, and the number is expected to climb to 23 next month. The real boost in turnover may be years away, but the movement symbolizes a present passion. This could be a factor working against Democrats here in Washington State and against Republicans in Colorado.

Whose seats. The technical issue of which Senate seats are up for reelection (generally all house seats are) can be decisive. Of the California Senate seats in contention, only five are held by Republicans, leaving the Democrats (with 14 seats to defend) with much to lose.

Gubernatorial coattails. Since many legislative candidates are relative unknowns, they stand to get spin-off votes when their party wins a governorship. In Wisconsin and Ohio, popular Republican governors running for reelection may bring each state's House into the GOP fold.

Redistricting. District lines were redrawn after the 1990 census, creating more districts where minority candidates could win. As a byproduct, other districts became more prone to Republican victory, Gold says.

Whatever happens Nov. 8, a solid majority of statehouse seats will almost certainly remain filled by Democrats. Republicans now hold 3,024 of the 7375 seats nationwide, and Gold forecasts GOP gains of a ``couple hundred.''

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