Voter discontent with the status quo extended to state legislatures Tuesday, giving Democrats a significant edge. It's a shift reflecting the increasing importance of such positions in the eyes of political parties as well as voters, as key national issues gain political traction at the state level.
From New Hampshire to Oregon, Democrats gained approximately 275 state legislative seats and took control of nine chambers, mainly in the Midwest.
The shift is not as dramatic as when the GOP gained 472 seats during the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, or when Democrats enjoyed a similar landslide in 1974.
Nonetheless, says political analyst Tim Storey of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, "All the movement went in one direction.
"Democrats gained seats in almost every legislative chamber," he says, noting Democrats gained governorships as well.
Control of state legislatures is an important part of public policy in the United States. State lawmakers spend more than a half-trillion dollars a year on such things as roads, education, and health care.
But it's more than just new bridges and classrooms. Increasingly, both major political parties have been pouring money into state legislative campaigns. For one thing, it's the place where most members of Congress are likely to start their political careers – a place to help groom future US senators and representatives. At the same time, interest groups increasingly are focusing on state legislatures as the place to gain influence on such hot-button issues as gun control, gay rights, immigration, minimum wage, and same-sex marriage.
Also, a US Supreme Court decision last June gives state lawmakers clearer authority on drawing the maps critical in determining winners and losers in congressional redistricting. In a split decision, the justices rejected a constitutional challenge to a plan, designed by former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R) of Texas – giving the GOP a majority of Texas seats in the US House of Representatives.
This week's shift in state legislatures (and governorships) can be expected to benefit Democrats when it comes time to reapportion congressional districts again.
Meanwhile, the outcome of this week's state legislative races seems to be following a pattern.
"Because state legislative campaigns often have less visibility, they are more susceptible to strong national trends," John McGlennon, professor of government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said on the eve of the election. "In 1974 and 1994, for instance, landslide midterm elections for the Democrats and Republicans respectively produced swings of hundreds of state legislative seats for the winning party."
As Dr. McGlennon predicted, Democrats at the state lawmaking level gained ground this time, too, just as their party brethren did on Capitol Hill.
This comes following a report by William & Mary researchers last week showing that the number of contested state legislative seats is on the rise, indicating both party and voter interest in this level of government.
"The increase in competition is another piece of evidence that Americans are becoming more, not less, active politically," says McGlennon.
Until this week's election, the nation's 7,382 state legislative seats were almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans – Democrats had a scant 21-seat majority – with Republicans controlling 20 legislatures, Democrats controlling 19, and 10 legislatures split between parties. Nebraska's legislature is nonpartisan.
While the results in Pennsylvania, Montana, and Washington State were not conclusive at this writing, Democrats now control both houses of the legislatures in 23 states, Republicans in 15 states, and nine states are split.