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Ruling gives statehouse elections new attention

Published July 16, 2006

State legislatures, always the undercard of the nation's elections, are suddenly important.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that gave states broader powers to draw the political maps defining control of Congress have added a new dimension to legislative races.

Right now, it seems that's better news for Democrats than Republicans.

"Grass roots takes on a whole new meaning when indeed you set the control of Congress," said Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, a Democrat. "Potentially, in some states, a shift of power means a shift of congressional seats."

In a decision upholding Texas' 2003 redistricting, the Supreme Court ruled that states could conduct redistricting whenever they wished, rather than the traditional once-a-decade schedule following release of new census figures. Political observers say Texas' new congressional map helped the GOP win six House seats.

Such shifts will probably remain rare even with the high court ruling, since one party needs to control both the legislature and governorship, and the process is exhausting and tends to dominate a legislative session. Not all state constitutions would allow it. But it does open the door, and it means state races can have a much greater national impact.

Statehouse control has seesawed for the past decade. Mostly Democratic for a quarter-century, legislatures were put into contention by the 1994 Republican landslide.

Now Republicans are up slightly - with 20 legislatures entirely in GOP hands, 19 in Democratic control and 10 split (Nebraska is nonpartisan). Of the nation's 7,382 legislative seats, Democrats have a slight edge - by 21 seats.

The narrow divide is reflected within the individual legislatures. In more than 20 states, one or both chambers could see power change hands with a shift of just five or fewer seats.

This fall - with a major midterm battle for Congress, 36 races for governor and polls showing a dissatisfied electorate - many strategists and observers say there's a chance for a shift among state legislatures that could give Democrats more seats and more statehouses.

And it's not just Democrats saying it. "We had polling that said the national mood will have an effect on the legislative elections," said Alex Johnson, who heads the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, a Washington group that provides help and funding for statehouse elections.

"But the polling also showed that when our candidates get out and get their message out, that beats back the national mood," he said. "If they're lazy, they'll get swept up."

Johnson said the average over the past 30 years is that 12 chambers - either a state House or a state Senate - switch parties. He's hoping to fall only slightly behind and lose a net of one or two chambers.

States targeted by one or both parties include Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Democrats say they see an opportunity driven by low approval numbers for President Bush and the GOP-led Congress.

"There's always a tide," said Fitz-Gerald in Colorado. "You're either swimming with it or against it. This time, I think we're swimming with it."

One troubling sign for the GOP is that over the past six months special elections saw 13 seats change hands from one party to the other - and Democrats won 11 of those.

Johnson's Democratic counterpart in Washington, Michael Davies of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said internal polls show voters identifying with Democrats more than they did two or three years back. "We're poised to have a good year," he said.

Michigan state Sen. Mark Schauer knows from experience what's on the line.

After his state redrew its congressional maps to benefit the GOP in 2001 - when Republicans controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governorship - four Democratic seats in the U.S. House were lost in one swoop.

[Last modified July 16, 2006, 02:07:42]

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