Hot Contests in '98: Statehouses

Biggest opportunities may come in legislatures, where parties can firm up positions for the post-2000 Congress.

By election eve, the TV ads were running fast and furious.

One claimed state Rep. Mary Lazich, a Republican running for the Wisconsin Senate, had opposed giving new moms an extra day in the hospital. The next favored Ms. Lazich, calling her tough on taxes.

Lazich, running in a Republican district, won easily. And along the way, more than $637,000 had been spent, not only by the candidates, but also by outside groups - all for a job that pays only $39,211 a year.

Why such big spending? In part because the parties want to win at the state level now to enhance their chance of controlling the US Congress later. State lawmakers are the ones who will redraw congressional districts after the 2000 census - a fiercely partisan exercise, undertaken only once a decade, that can tip a House seat toward one or the other party.

The big money also tends to flow to races where power hangs in the balance. Lazich's victory last week handed the Senate majority to the GOP, which already controls the state Assembly and the governor's seat.

But as campaigns gear up around the country for the fall elections, high price tags typical of congressional races could become less of an exception for state office. And with reason: The margin of power in many state legislatures is razor thin - in 24 chambers, a change of only three seats would shift partisan control. With the odds for continued GOP control of the US House and Senate in Washington, as well as a majority of governorships, the legislatures could be the most volatile battleground of Election '98.

"The governors have veto power, but the bottom line is that the state legislators do the work" on redistricting, says Tim Storey at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "More and more, we'll see congressmen befriending state legislators - calling, visiting, helping them get bridges."

In addition, on policy matters, state legislatures are becoming more important, as Washington passes on greater responsibility.

And for both parties, legislatures remain the training ground for national political talent. "Let's face it, they're our farm team," says Mike Collins, press secretary for the Republican National Committee. "There's probably a future president or two out there."

Though Democrats still hold a majority of the nation's 7,424 state legislative seats, Republicans have made a net gain of more than 15 percent since 1992. Overall, Republicans and Democrats each control about half of the states' chambers.

In Washington, both national party committees have a growing interest in legislative races, especially as redistricting nears. In 1993, the Democrats formed a committee to help state party leaders in crucial races. But the wake-up call came in 1994, when the Republican Party swept the Democrats out of control in Congress and took many state legislative seats.

For some local party activists, the heightened outside interest comes at a cost. In Wisconsin, following Lazich's victory, local Democrats were mostly unhappy - not only because they lost the race, but also because "outsiders" working on behalf of their candidate pumped up spending with ads they viewed as misleading.

The producer of the ads, a group called Future Wisconsin, spent more than $180,000 - a budget that may have outstripped spending by the candidate himself, according to one analysis. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and labor unions were major contributors to Future Wisconsin.

All the spending is "changing the whole process and getting away from real democracy," complains Terry Spring, chairwoman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. "It's becoming money- and media-driven."

IN Washington, party activists view the spending positively - as a way to get a candidate's message out more effectively.

"The key to state legislative races is campaign organization," says Kevin Mack, the Democratic legislative committee's executive director. "The days of just billboards and bumper stickers are over. Now we're looking at more research, polling, television."

Overall, spending on legislative races has been rising steadily, though not skyrocketing, the NCSL reports. But from one state to the next, the price tag of a seat can vary widely. In 1994, the median amount spent by candidates in a contested race for California's lower house was $219,230. In Wyoming, it was less than $3,500. This year, one hotly contested race in southern Illinois is expected to top $1 million.

Another wild card in the future of state legislative elections is term limits, now in effect in 24 states. This fall, the first large group of term-limited legislators will be leaving office, creating lots of open seats in some states. In Michigan, a majority of the 110-member House cannot run for reelection. This means many contested races - and fertile ground for big spending.

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