Power Shift Looms
For Many Statehouses
James Kyle Jr., a Tennessee state senator, has one ambition as his state swings into campaign season. "I want to be a trivia question -- the only Democratic minority leader in Tennessee history," Sen. Kyle says.
He would earn the distinction by helping Democrats this fall move from minority status in the General Assembly Senate back to the majority they long enjoyed. Given that Republicans' advantage consists of one seat in the state Senate, that seems an attainable goal this year.
With several statehouses controlled by razor-thin edges, the potential for swings in power may be greater at the state level than in Congress, where the struggle for control gets more attention.
In 29 legislative chambers across the nation, a shift of no more than five seats would bring a new party to power. If the restless, dissatisfied mood among many voters produces a desire to throw out incumbents, both parties could see turmoil at the state level. If the sentiment turns against Republicans in charge at the national level, Democrats could make significant gains in elections.
Democrats appear to be in the better position. With modest gains in a handful of states, they could take a majority of legislative chambers. Republicans have prevailed since 2002, when they won a slim majority for the first time since 1952.
Republicans control both houses in 20 state capitals, compared with 19 for the Democrats. Nebraska's one-house legislature is nominally nonpartisan, but dominated by Republicans. The two parties split chambers in 10 states.
Tim Storey, a political analyst at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, says a positive sign for Democrats may be an edge in recent party-switching among candidates. Since December, he says, 13 state legislators have changed parties; 11 of them turned Democratic from Republican. He also notes that in the past six months Democrats have won more special elections than Republicans -- an additional potential bellwether of voter sentiment.
Democrats consider Montana, Iowa and Tennessee, among others, as states where they have the best shot at gaining control. They cite President Bush's unpopularity as one of the main reasons for their newfound resurgence.
But Republicans take hope in the fact that local races often cut against the national tide. They see Maine, North Carolina, and Oklahoma as states where they may gain an advantage.
Beyond the legislatures, Democrats also hope to regain a majority of governorships for the first time since Republicans gained the advantage there in 1994. Currently, Republicans have a 28 to 22 edge. But with 36 gubernatorial races this year, a big swing is possible.
A change in legislative control can affect a range of issues, including taxes and tort reform -- as well as the boundaries of a state's congressional districts, which could affect control of the U.S. Congress. "When you flip a chamber, the conversation in a state changes immediately," says Michael Davies of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a group helping party candidates nationwide.
In Tennessee, for example, Republicans' one-seat dominance was responsible for torpedoing a proposal this spring to raise the state's minimum wage. That has parallels in Iowa, where Democratic Senate President John Kibbie says a chamber knotted at 25-25 "can't even get a minimum wage bill out of committee."
While the issues in state elections may have little to do with Washington debates, the national mood still can affect statehouse battles. Local candidates are more apt to run shoestring campaigns, and many are relatively unknown. "At this grassiest of grassroots level, a lot of people vote party," Mr. Storey says. That is a potential problem for Republicans, whose standard bearer is prosecuting an unpopular war and continues to receive low approval ratings.
There is history as well: Since 1938, the party in power in the White House has sustained defeats in the statehouse every election year except 2002.
Yet sometimes state elections counter national trends. In 2004, Mr. Bush won Colorado and Montana. But Democrats managed to pull off an upset at the Denver statehouse, capturing control of both chambers for the first time in 30 years. They also took a four-seat advantage in the Montana state senate.
Republicans say that even if their party suffers nationally they have good prospects for gains in Maine, where Democrats control the 151-member House by one vote, and the 35-member Senate by three votes. Those slim majorities have kept Republicans from tinkering with a universal health-care initiative championed by the state's Democratic governor. But a flip in a chamber could empower Republicans to make changes.
Every seat in both houses in Maine will be contested in November, and Alex Johnson, executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, says his party has a chance there not only because of the state's moribund economy but also because popular Republican U.S. senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have shown a willingness to "buck" Mr. Bush at times.
Mr. Johnson also sees decent prospects in Oklahoma, where Republicans picked up a seat in a special election in May, dropping the Democratic edge in that chamber to two seats. "Things are much more fluid at the state level than they are at the national level," he says.
As both parties gird for their respective runs at the statehouses, they are also focusing on congressional redistricting. Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay worked to have Republicans take control of the Texas Legislature so they could redraw the map to favor their party's congressional candidates. The plan was largely upheld by the Supreme Court last week, allowing many other states to consider more aggressive redistricting, and raising the stakes of state legislative races.
While remapping may begin in earnest after the 2010 census, the high court's ruling gives states a freer hand to move sooner. Political operatives say the fate of about 15 congressional seats nationwide could hang in the balance. The 2006 statehouse elections are "table-setting for redistricting, " Mr. Storey says.
Write to Christopher Cooper at christoph...@wsj.com1