Battle for state legislatures carries high stakes

/ Source: The Associated Press

Political control of several key state legislatures could change hands on Election Day, raising the chance for one-party domination of swing states Michigan and Pennsylvania, booming Nevada and Northeast giant New York.

Democrats are cautiously optimistic that enthusiasm and turnout for Barack Obama's presidential campaign will help their candidates far down the ticket. Republicans hope to steer clear of the national mood that has turned against the GOP and focus instead on local issues.

Though state legislative races draw far less attention than contests for the White House, Congress and governor, the party that controls the legislatures has an outsized role nationally — crafting domestic policy, drawing congressional districts and laying the foundation for political stars in the future.

Obama himself is only four years removed from a stint in the Illinois Legislature. Democratic control there first gave him the spotlight and the chance to pass legislation that he often cites on the campaign trail.

Nationally, Democrats already hold their strongest majority in more than a decade, controlling the legislatures in 23 states. Republicans dominate in 14 states. Twelve states are split, and Nebraska is nonpartisan.

In some ways, Democrats are suffering from too much of a good thing: The party's victories since 2004 eroded GOP gains from the 1990s but made it that much harder to find opportunities for growth now.

"We're doing a little more defense than we have, and a little less offense," said Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, chairman of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that has raised more than $6 million to spend on legislative races in the past two years.

Republicans see cause for hope, though they make a point to avoid national issues because polls show widespread dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans in Congress.

"You certainly can't omit or be unaware of the national environment. But if you run your race on local issues, you can separate yourself very easily," said Carrie Cantrell with the Republican State Leadership Committee, which provides cash and other resources to help win legislative seats.

Forty-four states will hold legislative elections next month, with 5,824 seats — or 79 percent of all legislative seats — before the voters.

"In an environment that seems to favor Democrats across the board in 2008, legislatures could deliver a bright spot for Republicans," said Tim Storey, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "If Democrats do gain seats, it will truly reflect a landslide by the party and would really be an indicator of this turnout machine."

Among the most closely watched states:

  • New York, where Democrats are only two seats away from a majority in the state Senate. If they win, it would be the first time Democrats have held all three decision-making parts of government — governor, Assembly and Senate — since 1935.
  • Pennsylvania, where Republicans need only to pick up one seat to take back control of the House and dominate the entire Legislature.
  • Montana, where control could flip either way or remain split. Democrats lead the Senate with a two-seat margin, while Republicans hold the House by just one seat.

Other states where one party could take control include Delaware, Indiana, Michigan and Oklahoma. Democrats also see opportunities to gain power in the Ohio House and Wisconsin Assembly.

In New York, Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith said Obama is having a "tremendous impact" on the effort to gain two seats and take power, citing voter registration and Democratic enthusiasm in four critical districts. "This is our best chance," he said.

The interest spreads beyond state lines. For instance, national groups that advocate for gay rights and their supporters have contributed money to the state Senate effort. Both the Assembly and Democratic Gov. David Paterson have expressed support for same-sex marriage.

In conservative Texas, Republicans hold the Legislature and all statewide offices, and polls show strong support for John McCain. But Democrats say their candidates are doing well, and there is a chance to win the House.

These contests also attract national attention and cash because of the power state legislatures have to redraw the maps of Congress. Though redistricting won't begin in earnest until after the 2010 Census, when population changes require new congressional lines, maneuvering has already begun.

Gronstal said he has already been in "very serious discussions" with Democratic leaders in Congress about which states should be targeted now and in the 2010 election for redistricting purposes. "I describe it as who gets to get the crayons to draw the lines."

In New England, every state legislature is now in Democratic hands. But in Maine, Republicans see a chance to pick up one seat and take power in the Senate.

Among other issues, GOP candidates in Maine are running on frustration with the state's health care reform, championed by the Democratic governor. Shortfalls in the program spurred new taxes on beer, wine and soft drinks. The tax increase passed 18-17, with majority Democrats and minority Republicans voting in blocs.

"We have a formula that works, which is local race, local issues. Stay completely away from this nationalization of the races," said Roy Lenardson, a political consultant for Republican candidates. That seems wise, considering that recent Maine polls put the Democratic presidential ticket ahead by an average 16 percentage points, according to

"This notion of the Obama rain washing in all the Democrats, I think that's a secret fear," he said. "On the other hand ... this notion that Maine is a down-ticket place, where once you pick Obama you go down the ballot — no."