A pitched battle for state legislatures

Chambers in 25 states could change majorities with a tip of three seats or less as parties fight furiously across the country.

With the media's political Doppler radar fixed squarely on this November's presidential showdown, a less-obvious political battle is taking place that, in several ways, will have a more direct impact on the lives of Americans.

The outcome also could more accurately reflect where voters stand on a spate of domestic issues, from gay marriage to abortion and taxes.

The battle for party control over state legislatures, say experts, is more intense than at any point in recent political memory.

Of the more than 7,000 legislative seats in the US, the GOP holds a slim 60-seat advantage. And of the 50 states, 25 have legislative chambers that could switch party control with a shift of just three seats or less.

In Maine and Colorado, a switch of one seat could reverse longtime party dominance of both legislative and executive branches. While in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, a change in three seats could significantly reshape the poltical path of the South's fastest-growing states.

Several of the nation's key battleground states - Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington - could solidify political alliances for years to come.

"This is a far bigger election year for state legislatures than most," says Tim Story, election analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Because there are so many close votes which could shift party control of legislative chambers, it will likely have an impact on every issue before state government from civil unions to transportation, education, and health care."

This fall's vote will indicate whether Republicans can continue to garner more power in state governments. The 2002 election gave the GOP control of a majority of US legislative seats for the first time in 50 years. (Republicans now control both chambers in 21 states, compared to 18 for Democrats.)

A dramatic gain for Republicans, or a shift towards the Democrats, will not only be a litmus test for national candidates, but could also indicate the overall political leanings of the electorate at the grass roots.

"These crucial, very close races in so many state legislatures are big deal because they will show if the GOP's recent gains continue or move backward," says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "If there is a swing backward, that is important, if it continues, it's historic."

For individual states, a shift in party control usually means a redistribution of power through committee assignments and leadership positions. The party with a majority is able to control which bills are voted on. Powerful leaders are able to quash some legislation altogether, or resurrect other bills that previous parties bottled-up for years.

"The majority party in any legislature has control of the agenda in a profound way," says Elizabeth Garrett, political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "They control what versions of bills get voted on, and what opening negotiations are between governor and legislators."

The redistribution of power could have profound reverberations for many states. In North Carolina, a shift of four seats in the senate would give the GOP control of both chambers, and with it a likely mandate to cut education funding.

A fiscal crisis in North Carolina has led to a large number of cutbacks and increasing pressure on the legislature to raise taxes. Experts say a win by the GOP could mean a drawback in funding for public education.

"Whenever political competition is so close, it brings the prominence of those sorts of neighborly issues in the various counties to the kitchen tables," says Jack Fleer, a political science professor emeritus at Wake Forest University.

That could be the case in Maine, where the state's Democratic governor is fighting to cap taxes while proposing major cuts in health services. If the Republicans win control of the Senate, in which they currently hold a one-seat minority, the legislature will likely support the governor's proposal.

"It will likely bolster the governor's pledge to keep taxes status quo," says Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Orono.

Face-offs in such states with razor-thin margins mean higher-stakes for both national and state party machinery, more in-your-face politicking for voters, an increase in money spent, and more ubiquitous advertisements from billboards to television.

Such races could become even more heated where controversial social issues are under debate. A victory of two seats in Indiana's House would give the GOP control of the entire legislature as well as of the governor's office.

If they control both chambers, Republicans are likely to pass an amendment to Indiana's state constitution banning gay marriage, a vote that was recently blocked by the Democratic House Speaker.

"I don't think there's a doubt in the world that the GOP would pass this amendment if they get control," says Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Such local issues could also bring out the voters needed to push Bush or Kerry over the top in the airtight races of battleground states.

"In the Florida vote for president in 2000, Republicans in some counties were out in force because of local issues from sheriff to state legislature," says Larry Sabato, a government professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Those same voters, because they were already at the polls to vote for local concerns, put Bush over the top to win Florida and the national election."

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