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October 30, 2006

Statehouse power at stake in '06

By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer

The fight for control of Congress is dominating the Nov. 7 election, but a high-priced battle for control of the nation’s statehouses also is being waged and promises to be a nail-biter in at least 14 states.

State legislatures – much like the American public – are almost evenly divided politically. A shift of five seats or less could cost Republicans their majority in one or both chambers in seven states -- Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Democrats also are clinging to control by a handful of seats in seven states -- Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Oregon.

The Iowa Senate and the Montana House are currently deadlocked, so the flip of just one seat there would decide political control.
Overall, 6,119 of the nation’s 7,382 seats in state legislatures will be on the ballot in 46 states. Nearly 37 percent of those lawmakers are running unopposed, but the razor-thin margins in so many state legislatures raise the competitive stakes on Election Day.

The outcome will determine which party sets the policy agenda in state legislatures for the next two years and which has the upper hand heading toward all-important redistricting of legislative and congressional districts after the 2010 census – if not before. But the outcome will be telling in other ways, too.
Election Day will show whether national discontent with the Iraq war and the GOP-controlled Congress and White House trickles down to local races, and if so, whether it tars just Republicans -- or incumbents more generally. It will determine whether Democrats can build on their 2004 victories in statehouses and regain ground the party has lost to Republicans between 1994 and 2002.
It also will test efforts by rich donors, in states such as Colorado, Michigan and West Virginia, to single-handedly shape control of their home-state legislatures.
Currently, the GOP controls both chambers in 20 state legislatures, compared to Democratic majorities in both chambers in 19 states. Ten statehouses are split between the parties (Nebraska has the nation's only nonpartisan, unicameral Legislature). Out of 7,382 state legislative seats, Democrats now have a tiny, 21-member majority.
Among the most competitive states is Iowa, where Democratic wins two years ago tied the state Senate, and left the GOP clinging to a 51-49 majority in the House. Democrats also gained seats in 2004 to tie the Montana House and won a 27-23 majority in the state Senate.
Also closely watched this year is Colorado, where the governor’s seat also is open. Surprise victories in 2004 gave Democrats majorities in both legislative chambers for the first time in more than four decades. Political analysts look to Colorado as a bellwether of Democrats' future success in the West.
Republicans had their own surprise victory in 2004, winning control of the Georgia Legislature and sparking a flurry of Democrats to switch parties in the Peach State.
But Republicans will have to overcome several built-in disadvantages to make gains at the statehouse level in 2006. The first is history. 

Only once since 1938 has the president's party won state legislative seats in a mid-term election. That was in 2002, when the nation rallied behind President Bush and Republicans in the wake of terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. In that year, Republicans finally gained a nationwide majority of seats in state legislatures.
Another problem is that many more Democratic state legislators than Republican lawmakers are running unopposed, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democratic state House candidates are unchallenged in nearly 64 percent of races across the country, compared to a little more than 36 percent of Republicans, NCSL elections expert Tim Storey said.
More than 56 percent of Democratic state Senate candidates have no challenger for the Nov. 7 election, compared to nearly 44 percent of Republicans, NCSL found.
On top of that, the public's growing disdain for the war in Iraq, congressional ethics and sex scandals and federal inaction on illegal immigration and other issues are overshadowing the entire political landscape, said NCSL Executive Director William Pound.
"There is, I think, a general sense of dissatisfaction ... that the country isn't going the right way, and in many places it's a vote against the Republicans -- whoever's in control. It may affect the Democrats that way in places where they're in control," Pound said.
Pound said several factors could limit Democratic gains, including sophisticated redistricting after the 2000 elections that employed computer technology to ensure that districts remained safe for incumbents.
State legislative races in 2006 have attracted unprecedented amounts of money from national party groups, business and labor interests and even wealthy individuals who aim to tilt the political playing field, Pound said.
The largest portions of money flowing into statehouse races are coming from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Republican State Leadership Committee. Both are in the top 10 of all so-called 527s -- nonprofit political advocacy groups that can use unlimited contributions for issue advertising or get-out-the-vote efforts but that are prohibited from directly advocating for the election or defeat of a specific federal candidate.
The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) has spent nearly $14 million in this election cycle, including expenditures supporting lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which backs only statehouse candidates, has spent more than $6 million, the Center reported.
Both groups are funded primarily by corporate or labor interests and have surpassed their spending totals for the 2004 elections, when roughly the same percentage of lawmakers was up for election.
While similar groups have sprung up in key states across the country, a growing number are backed by wealthy individuals specifically to help state legislative committees. In Michigan, for example, Kalamazoo billionaire Jon Stryker has spent a record $4.7 million to help Democrats try to erase their four-seat minority in both chambers of the state Legislature.
In Colorado, Stryker's sister was a key founder of the Coalition for A Better Colorado, which spent $574,368 and is credited with helping the Democrats gain control of the state Legislature in 2004. Since then, more than a dozen dueling 527s have formed to influence state-level races in the Rocky Mountain State, including the Trailhead Group, which is backed primarily by beer magnate Pete Coors and has spent more than $1.5 million to support Republican state legislative candidates and the GOP gubernatorial contender, U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez.
In West Virginia, coal magnate Don Blankenship has spent at least $700,000 in a long-shot bid to give Republicans a majority in the state Legislature, where they are heavily outnumbered. Because West Virginia caps the amount individuals can give to 527s, Blankenship has simply financed his own political advertising blitz.
The amount of campaign dollars invested in state legislative races has grown as states find themselves at the forefront of a wide range of policy innovations and regulation on the environment, international trade and even illegal immigration.
In addition, states are handing out larger amounts of money as their budgets continue to rebound from the recession earlier this decade and as the federal government provides greater flexibility for spending grants given to the states for programs such as Medicaid.
But the big political prize for this year's elections may not pay off until after the 2010 U.S. Census, when lawmakers will redraw the boundaries of their state legislative and congressional districts.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court approved a mid-decade redistricting plan by Texas Republicans, no partisan groups have stepped forward since that ruling to test early redistricting possibilities in other states.
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