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Democrats deliver a power punch: for the first time since 1994, the Democrats took control of the majority of the nation's state legislatures.

A powerful left hook took down hundreds of Republican state legislators across the country this election. For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats control more legislative chambers and more state governments than the GOP.

In Congress, governors' mansions and state legislatures alike, voters opted for change, and more often than not, that meant Democrat.

"So much of it was a statement of disappointment in Republican leadership rather than an embrace of the Democratic alternative," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "The election was a referendum on the national GOP." As they have done in nearly every mid-term election for decades, voters aimed their wrath at partisans of the president's party. Exit polls showed that the Iraq war and ethics scandals worked against Republicans at every level of government.

Why does Luntz believe Americans largely voted against Republicans by default? He was revolved in the Republican knock-out in 1994, when the GOP gained 472 seats and 20 chambers in state legislatures, in addition to control of Congress and 10 governors' offices. Back then, Newt Gingrich's Contract with America was specific, Luntz says. This year, he says, the Democrats "didn't run on anything."

Not true, says Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Democrats ran on something. It just wasn't the same in every district.

"These were really local races and I think the Democrats ran on very strong local messages," Davies says. "How do we restore confidence in our state? How do we fix education? How do we deal with energy in a way that makes sense to our state? What the Republicans didn't have this time that they've held in other elections is the national trump card at the last minute. When they turned on the national brand, it wasn't there."

THE NEW NUMBERS

Power shifted to Democrats in 10 of the 11 state legislative chambers that changed hands Nov. 7, according to unofficial figures with recounts pending in seemingly every state. Democratic pick-ups came in the Iowa House and Senate, the Indiana House, the Minnesota House, the Michigan House, the Montana House, the New Hampshire House and Senate, the Oregon House and the Wisconsin Senate.

The GOP did gain enough seats to tie the senate chamber in Oklahoma, but the Democrats remain in power. In the Oklahoma Senate, the lieutenant governor casts deciding votes, and she is a Democrat.

As of Nov. 14, Democrats control both legislative chambers in 24 states, Republicans in 16. In nine states, control is split. Nebraska's unicameral legislature is nonpartisan and the Pennsylvania House is undecided. Going into the election, Democrats controlled both chambers in 19 states, Republicans in 20, and 10 states were split. Democrats went from 47 chambers to 56; the GOP from 49 to 41. Two chambers were tied before the election and one chamber is tied after the voting.

In six states, Democrats won the governorship from Republicans: Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, giving them 28 governors mansions to the Republican's 22--more than they've held since 1994.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart had predicted his party would be "exceptionally strong" in the states, in both the legislative and executive branch. He was not surprised by the results.

"I thought we would do well along the Mississippi and we did. The Democrats won five of six governors' races there," Hart says. "That sort of underscores the spine of America."

Democrats hold control in more states than the GOP for the first time since 1994. When the governor's party is combined with legislative control, 16 states are blue; 10 are red and 23 have divided government. Before the election, Democrats had both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor's office in just eight states; Republicans in 12 states and 29 states were divided.

State changes mirror the federal elections, where Democrats won control of the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Congressional gains also reflect the election of 1994. Pundits frequently invoked that election as this one approached. It was a midterm election, when the party of the president historically has lost a significant number of state legislative seats.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton's attempt at universal health care had failed. The country was in recession. In State Legislatures magazine, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour called it "the largest midterm election majority sweep of the century."

Although this is only the third election cycle of this relatively new century, that could be said about 2006 as well. Since 2000, the parties have controlled, within three, the same number of legislatures.

CHAMBERS THAT CHANGED

At least 12 chambers will be under new management when sessions start next month. Some of these changes were surprises. Experts saw others coming.

The Montana House, the Indiana House and the Wisconsin Senate are chambers that often pivot. In the 35 elections since 1938, which marks the beginning of NCSL records, the Montana legislative chambers have changed a record 28 times. The Montana House was tied going into the election, but now the Democrats have one more seat than the Republicans, and the nation's first Constitution Party legislator will round out the body.

The Indiana House had a 52-48 Republican majority before the election; now it's 51-49 for the Democrats. It's the 15th time that chamber has changed hands in the past 35 elections. Another perennial candidate for change is the Wisconsin Senate where Democrats picked up four seats to give them a narrow majority.

Term limits hit Democrats in the Oklahoma Senate hard this year. Republicans took advantage, and picked up two seats to earn a tie.

In Oregon, no Democratic incumbents lost as they seized control of the House--even coming close to upsetting the speaker in her own district.

Democrats had strong footing in Iowa. The Senate was tied for the last two years, but Democrats picked up four seats, giving them an eight-seat lead. In the Iowa House, Democrats needed only one seat to take control, but grabbed nine.

In the Minnesota House, Republicans had a two-seat majority and knew they were up against the ropes. But they didn't envision the Democrats would pick up 18 seats for a 36-strong lead.

The sweeping Democratic gains in the Michigan House surprised some observers, who considered the state's district lines quite Republican-friendly. The blue team was down by nine going into the contest. But it weathered the uphill battle to claim six new seats and retain three vacancies for a six-person advantage.

The biggest swing happened in the New Hampshire House, which, at 400 members, is the largest chamber in the nation. On Election Day, the GOP ruled, with a 92-seat lead. After ballots were tallied, Democrats had picked up 92 seats, giving them a 78-seat advantage and a majority of seats for the first time since the Civil War. Gains in the Senate were no less monumental. There the Democrats picked up five seats in the small 24 seat body.

"I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't astounded by the New Hampshire House," says Davies, of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. He was also surprised by the size of the new majorities in the Minnesota and Michigan houses. He was pleased by gains in the Pennsylvania House, where Democrats picked up l0 seats to bring them within one seat of the Republicans. And with several races within a small margin and pending recounts at press time, it's possible that the Pennsylvania House could still go to the Democrats.

"You don't usually see shifts that big," Davies says.

"Big" was relative this year.

"It was a big night in Oklahoma. I didn't look at what happened elsewhere," quips Alex Johnson, executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee.

"This was a year we sought to minimize our losses and we were successful in a few places, Ohio being one of them," Johnson says. "They had a terrible anti-Republican problem and yet we're still in power [in the legislature]. We tried in other places. It didn't work as well. Our guys were swimming upstream everywhere, let there be no doubt."

He cites exit polls that said 65 percent of Americans made their voting decisions based on national issues. "When you get numbers like that, it's hard for our guys to compete locally."

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

Compared to other regions, Democratic gains in the South were relatively small, but had historic significance. The Democrats gained 19 seats in the South this year, marking the first time they haven't suffered a net loss of southern legislative seats since 1982.

Since the high point of the "solid South" in 1958, when Democrats held 95 percent of the seats there, the party's fortunes have been declining in the region, punctuated by occasional small recoveries like this one. Today, Democrats hold 54 percent of southern legislative seats and Republicans have 46 percent.

WHAT IT ALL MEANS

Turnout this year was average for a midterm election, at around 39 percent of eligible voters, says Michael McDonald, who studies American voting behavior at George Mason University.

He says the results are proof enough that Democratic voters were more energized than Republicans, and came out in higher numbers. But he pointed to exit polls showing independents were a key voting bloc and around two-thirds of them went for Democrats. "It was a very important piece of the puzzle," says McDonald.

McDonald speculates that in Congress and state legislatures a large number of moderate Republicans lost their seats. That's what happened to the Democrats in 1994, he says.

"Now, the party could move more to the right. They could decide that being more conservative is going to help them more in upcoming elections than trying to take moderate positions."

Or it could go the other way. McDonald said President Bush's reaction to the results, and the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, could signal a new direction.

"Maybe the era of nasty partisan politics is over," he says.

The Democrats have their own work cut out for them, McDonald says. "They won a lot of seats, but the curse is they have a more divisive caucus. The challenge for Democrats now is, How do they govern?"

Marching off to congress

The 110th Congress will feature not only new party control but more than five dozen new faces. Nearly half of them bring state legislative experience to the halls of Congress. The November elections proved once again that public policymaking experience gained at the state level can be a steppingstone to the nation's capital. When Congress convenes in January, half of the total House and Senate membership will have come from state legislative ranks. This is the same percentage that has prevailed for the past decade.

Twenty-nine of the 64 members of the freshmen class are state legislative veterans. Two of them, Maryland Senator-elect Ben Cardin and Tennessee Representative-elect Steve Cohen served on NCSL's Executive Committee. Nine come with state legislative leadership credentials. Four of the nine new senators have served in their respective state legislatures. All are Democrats. They are Cardin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Montana's Senate President Jon Tester. Cardin once served as the speaker of the Maryland House.

In the House, newcomers with state legislative credentials include Republicans Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, Gus Bilirakis of Florida, David Davis from Tennessee, Mary Fallin from Oklahoma, Dean Heller from Nevada, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Doug Lamborn of Colorado, Kevin McCarthy from California, Peter Roskam of Illinois, Bill Sali of Idaho, Adrian Smith of Nebraska and Tim Walberg from Michigan.

Thirteen of the new members are Democrats including Cohen, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Baron Hill from Indiana, Mazie Hirono from Hawaii, Ron Klein from Florida, Harry Mitchell of Arizona, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Ed Perlmutter from Colorado, Albio Sires of New Jersey, Betty Sutton of Ohio, Peter Welch from Vermont and Charlie Wilson from Ohio.

Lamborn, Perlmutter and Welch have all held the title of president pro tem. Representative-elect Sires was New Jersey's Assembly speaker for four years. McCarthy and Klein filled the minority leader slot in their respective chambers, and Wilson had a four-year run as an assistant minority leader.

A bevy of state-federal issues will confront this group immediately. Legislative changes to the Real ID Act, immigration reform, reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act and State Children's Health Insurance Program, telecommunications reform, collection of state sales and use taxes from remote sellers, Medicaid, air quality and numerous fiscal issues are on tap. These members with legislative experience frequently become supporters for NCSL's advocacy efforts and defenders against preemption and unfunded federal mandates.

At press time, nine more House races were undecided and most involved incumbents and challengers with state legislative backgrounds.

--Michael Bird, NCSL

Tim Storey is NCSL's elections expert. Nicole Casal Moore writes and edits for the NCSL Communications Division.
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Author:Moore, Nicole Casal
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Words:2140
Previous Article:A fish fight.
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