This year's most important US political battle may not be the contest for the presidency, or even the struggle for preeminence on Capitol Hill. It might instead be a fight with fronts all across the nation - the ground war between Republicans and Democrats for control of America's state legislatures.
Just-passed welfare reform and other Washington moves of devolution have handed state lawmakers enormous new powers. In coming months their decisions will profoundly affect millions of constituents, from poor mothers on Medicaid to telecommunications tycoons.
In 1994, the Republican revolution brought the GOP unprecedented statehouse gains, as well as control of the US House and Senate. This year's elections may again bring dramatic change. But if it does, the beneficiaries will likely be Democrats.
"You could certainly see some big Democratic increases. And with this election, unlike some in past years, the stakes are very high," says Nancy Rhyme of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Currently, the statehouse tally favors Republicans. The GOP controls the legislatures of 18 states, as opposed to 14 for Democrats. Fifteen states feature split control, with one party controlling the state House and the other the Senate.
The potential for change, in either party's direction, is shown by this fact: The difference between Democrats and Republicans is five seats or less in 22 state Senates and 14 Houses.
"A lot of states are just very, very close," notes Ms. Rhyme. Battlegrounds include:
Michigan. Currently, Michigan has a GOP-controlled statehouse, plus a Republican governor. But Democrats could seize control of the House with a gain of only two seats. A gain of four could bring them the state Senate.
GOP Gov. John Engler has been at the forefront of Republican efforts to revamp welfare at the state level. Loss of either state legislative chamber to the Democrats could put a crimp in Mr. Engler's plans.
Wisconsin. Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson has similarly been a leader in giving states more power to shape welfare spending. Yet Democrats, in an upset, seized control of the state's Senate via a special election last June. Democrats claim they'll hold that gain and possibly get the state's other chamber this fall. The GOP, for its part, believes it can roll back this Democratic beachhead.
Pennsylvania. Republicans control the Pennsylvania House by the slimmest of margins - 102 representatives to 101 for the Democrats. Thus this state is another particular Democratic target, though the GOP, with a nine-seat Senate edge, is likely to retain control of at least one legislative chamber.
California. With what is arguably the most important legislature outside of Washington's beltway, California is a perennial battleground state. Right now partisan control in Sacramento is split. Democrats control the Senate, while Republicans hold a narrow 41-to-39 edge in the Assembly.
Term limits further muddy the California legislative picture. It's one of two states - Maine is the other - where lawmakers will actually be forced to leave office this year by a new term-limit law.
By picking up only a few seats, Democrats could also win back the Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio Houses - all of which swung to the GOP in its big year of 1994. The Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, and South Dakota Senates are similar targets.
Republicans, for their part, are not without prospects. The march of the GOP through the South has been reflected at the statehouse level as well as in Washington, and Republicans are close to an historic assumption of power in numerous Southern states. In '94, the GOP won the Florida Senate for the first time since reconstruction; it's possible the state House could follow this year. The Virginia Senate, currently tied, might also go Republican. Other GOP targets: the Senates in Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
The intensity of partisan competition for state legislature seats this year reflects the growing importance of governing decisions made at the statehouse level. In most states, the old American ideal of citizen-legislators who sat for a few weeks a year and then went back to their real jobs faded long ago. The biggest states, such as California and New York, now have legislatures whose staffing and workload levels make them mini-Congresses.
Even in states where the old citizen-legislator ideal survives, notably New Hampshire and Vermont, legislative bodies are wrestling with increasingly complex modern problems of finance, crime prevention, education, and poverty.
"Virtually all of them are working harder than 20 years ago," notes Alan Rosenthal, a political scientist who specializes in state legislatures at Rutgers State University in New Brunswick, N.J.
Even in this context, welfare reform has raised the stakes for many state legislatures. A huge national program is now theirs to control. State welfare bureaucracies, once merely check-writing and fraud-investigation agencies, now will have to devise methods of moving recipients into jobs. States will have to decide how much, if any, of their federal welfare block grants to save against the prospect of increased welfare demand in a recession.
LAST year's US telecommunications reform bill will similarly push important decisions down to the state level, note experts, including questions of local phone access.
Further New Federalist devolution from Washington is likely to continue, note experts, no matter who controls the White House after Inauguration Day in January. National fiscal constraints are one big reason. Thus, the battle for control of state legislatures may only intensify.