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Perpetual parity: just when it looked like state legislatures couldn't get any closer they did.

November's state legislative elections did little to change the political landscape that shows a divided electorate. Democrats and Republicans find themselves stuck as they try to squeeze through the door to control America's legislatures. The 2004 election gave each party hope, but ultimately they remain locked in political parity.


Before the election, America's two major political parties were in an historic gridlock for control of the states. Republicans held a majority of the 7,382 legislative seats by just over 60 seats. In terms of the overall control of states, Republicans had 21 compared to 17 controlled by the Democrats. Eleven states were divided with neither party claiming both chambers. (The Nebraska Legislature is not only unicameral, but also elected on a nonpartisan basis.)

But just when it looked like it could not get any closer, it did. With a handful of recounts still pending in key races that could swing control in a couple of chambers, Democrats appear to have regained the majority of all legislative seats, but by only about 10. That's about a 0.1 percent advantage. In terms of the big picture, the difference in overall state legislative control also shrunk. Republicans continue to hold more legislatures, but by only a one state margin--20 Republican, 19 Democratic and 10 split.

Parity is not unique to state legislatures. The president garnered just 3 percent more of the popular vote than did Senator John Kerry. Congress is close in both houses.

"America is divided, more divided than ever," said Bill Schneider, senior political commentator at CNN. "And the division persists, even though the Republicans had a good year. I would have imagined they'd have bigger breakthroughs in state legislatures."

Experts predict this division to be more than a passing fad. Here's a closer look at how the state legislative results of election 2004 shook out, why they did in such a fashion and what they say about this nation.


Roughly 80 percent of state legislative seats were up for election in 44 states this year. In just over 35 percent of those races, one party's nominee got a pass by not having opposition from the other major party. In the others, the competition was fierce. In 23 states, there were 28 chambers where a slight shift of only five House seats or three Senate seats would reverse the party in power.

Party control switched in 12 chambers which is the average in every two-year election cycle. A new party is in power in eight of the top 10 state legislative election battlegrounds that NCSL identified in July, as well as four more chambers that weren't considered that close.

On the whole, the Democrats can claim a small victory in 2004 on the legislative front. They picked up seven chambers, compared with the GOP's four. An additional chamber the Republicans controlled before the election is now tied.

Democrats won both Colorado chambers (for the first time in 40 years), the Montana Senate, the North Carolina House, the Oregon Senate, the Vermont House and the Washington Senate. They managed a tie in the Iowa Senate, which Republicans had by an eight-seat margin before Election Day.

"Democrats at the state level exceeded national trends," said Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "While we did pick up seats in states where we did well presidentially, we also picked up seats in states where the Democrats lost in the presidential election. I think we did well in both blue and red states because the Democrats in those states did a really good job of localizing their races."

The GOP, however, also claimed prizes on Election Day with some historic pick-ups. Republicans grabbed the Georgia House, the Indiana House, the Tennessee Senate and the Oklahoma House. In Georgia and Tennessee, new Republican majorities are the first since Reconstruction. In Oklahoma, Republicans have not held the House in more than 80 years.

"We are thrilled about our historic victories in places like Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma," said Alex Johnson, executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. He added that many of the states where Democrats gained were very close going into the election. "We lost some chambers that were real tight, but they are still very close, and we'll try to win them back next time."


Republicans continue their gains in the South. In less than 15 years, the GOP has gone from having not one single legislative chamber in the South to controlling 13 out of 26, a quite remarkable realignment in a relatively short time span.

Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University believes the trend toward the Republicans started in the mid-1990s and was fueled by the popularity of Newt Gingrich. The chambers that turned red in 2004 appear to be part of this movement. "Gingrich was trying to get the Republicans to become the majority party at a time when the South was ready to become more conservative. They had been electing conservative Democrats. Now, the Republicans were giving them conservative Republicans instead," Rosenthal said.

After factoring in November's results, Republicans have added a net of 67 seats in the South in the past two years. In 2004, the Democrats offset those gains by doing well in the Northeast and West. The net gain for the Democrats in the East since 2002 is 57 more seats and 26 additional seats in the West. In the Midwest, it is essentially a draw with Democrats netting a mere three seats.


Large numbers of seats changed hands in many states. In certain chambers, including houses in Minnesota, Georgia and Vermont, party gains and losses were in double figures.

Though the Democrats didn't overtake the Republicans in the Minnesota House, they picked up a slew of seats--14 to be exact. Before the election, Republicans held a comfortable 30-seat majority. Now it's down to a claustrophobic two. Minnesota narrowly went for Kerry in the presidential race.

In the Georgia House, Democrats held a 27-seat majority before the election. Now it's the Republicans with an eight-seat majority. This large-scale swing can be attributed to several factors including a new, court-drawn redistricting plan that gave the Republicans a golden opportunity for gains. Republicans also raised and spent record amounts of campaign money in Georgia this year. And President Bush had a good showing with 58 percent of the popular vote.

"Coattails made a huge difference in Georgia," said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia. "There was a massive surge of voters, and the Republican get-out-the-vote machine really paid off."

The presidential race may have also had a major impact in Vermont House races. Republicans controlled that chamber by five seats before the election. The Democrats picked up 14 seats to secure a 23-seat majority. Kerry won 59 percent of the vote in Vermont. In addition to Vermont, it appears that Kerry's coattails helped swing a large number of seats to the Democrats in a number of states like Minnesota, Iowa, Oregon and even in Colorado where Kerry lost, but ran stronger than past Democrats.

The Oklahoma House also saw seats shift. The GOP picked up nine, giving it a 13-seat majority in this state that went for Bush by a large margin. Term limits opened the door to Republican control here for the first time in 80 years. Of the chamber's 101 legislators, 28 were forced to retire. Term limits were a factor in Michigan and Arkansas this year as well. The Arkansas House lost 36 percent of its membership and the Michigan House lost 34 percent. Neither chamber changed hands.


Headed into the 2004 election, pundits were predicting that voter turnout might swell to over 125 million voters. Some even said it could be up 25 million from the last presidential election. There were more voters, but in the modest range of just over 15 million.

Experts say that those new voters broke pretty evenly between the two parties. In addition, the two parties embarked on massive get-out-the-vote efforts that in the end wound up canceling each other out. "There was as much Republican new turnout as Democratic new turnout. The mobilization efforts basically negated each other" said University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato.


While a few chambers shifted dramatically and a few shifted slightly, most remained relatively stable, solidifying this American parity. The Republican and Democrat numbers first evened out in 2000. Before that, the Democrats led in chamber numbers and total legislators for 50 years. The 2004 elections may mark the beginning of an era with neither party dominating legislatures, but rather perpetually sharing power.

What's causing this even division? Schneider, of CNN, says, "It has to do more than anything else with values: religion, personal values, cultural values. It has to do with whether you own a gun, whether you support Iraq. What it does not have to do with is social class anymore."

Virginia's Sabato agreed when asked about what issues motivated voters when they chose state legislators. He says it's the issues that get people to pound the table when they argue--the issues that people feel intensely about. "Intensity generates coattails, and it's the social and cultural issues like abortion, the death penalty, gun control and morals that generate that intensity. Polarization continues across the board on issues like this and it translates down the ballot to races for state legislature."

Experts don't predict a return to decades of party monopoly. "For the immediate future, we've got a very competitive political party system," Rosenthal said. "It's competitive for president, for the Senate and the House. It's competitive for every state governor, and in probably 60 percent of the 98 state legislative bodies. And I think competitiveness on a systemic level can be good. It's good in that it offers a choice."

Candidates for state office aren't just competitive on the campaign trail. Once they get elected, they must contend with each other, and the other branches of state government. The 2004 election results show that when the governor's party is taken into account, Republicans control both legislative chambers and the governor's mansion in 12 states. Democrats do in seven states. And control is divided between the parties in 29 states with Washington still pending and Nebraska not included due to its nonpartisan elections for the legislature.


Even though legislatures remain closely divided between the two parties, it is time to start focusing on lawmaking now that the election is over. The big question is whether legislators in the many close chambers will be able to work together to address the needs of voters.

Davies, of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee thinks these splits and the 50-50 nature of the country will call for more compromise. "Especially with the state budget crises, there's a need for more bipartisanship in more chambers," Davies said. "We've got a lot of chambers that are very close, and a lot of states that have some great challenges. We're going to have to see a level of bipartisanship that is much more congenial than what we've seen at the national level."

Former Republican Governor Jim Edgar of Illinois said the election gives state lawmakers a chance to do just that.

"Let's take advantage of this new start," he said. "It's imperative that we find common ground to solve the problems the American people want solved."



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So you want to be a member of Congress? You might start by serving in a state legislature. For several decades, one of the most common shared experiences among members of Congress has been that they once served in their state legislature. In fact, since the 1998 elections, just over half the members of the national legislature served previously in a state legislature. The new 109th Congress will continue that tradition.

When Congress convenes in January, 50.6 percent of the membership will have come from state legislatures--exactly the same percentage as the past biennium.

There will be 47 first-termers in the 109th--nine in the Senate and 38 in the House. Of these, 24 are former state legislators--three in the Senate and 21 in the House. Among them are three who have been in the leadership of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Newly elected California Congressman Jim Costa will become the third former NCSL president to serve in the U.S. House. (He joins Minnesota Congressman Martin Sabo, who was NCSL president shortly after its formation in the mid-1970s. Missouri Congresswoman Karen McCarthy, the other NCSL president to serve in Congress, did not run for re-election this fall.)

Michigan Congressman-elect Joe Schwarz was a member of the NCSL Executive Committee in the mid-1990s. Newly elected Pennsylvania Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz served on the Executive Committee in 1999 and 2000 as a state senator. (A fourth recent member of the NCSL governing body, Larry Diedrich, lost his bid in November to represent South Dakota in the U.S. House.)

The new class of former legislators contains 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Only one, celebrated Illinois Senator Barack Obama, moved directly from his state legislature to the U.S. Senate. Three of the four Georgia newcomers held leadership positions in their legislatures. Senator-elect Johnny Isakson once was Georgia House minority leader. Congressman-elect Tom Price was the state's Senate majority leader in 2002-03 and his colleague Lynn Westmoreland has just concluded his stint as the House minority leader.

Other former state legislative leaders in the new class include Congresswoman-elect Cathy McMorris, who recently served as the minority leader in the Washington House of Representatives, Congresswoman-elect Gwen Moore, who was the pro term of the Wisconsin Senate in the late 1990s, and Congressman-elect Schwarz, a former pro tern of the Michigan Senate.

--Carl Tubbesing, NCSL

Tim Storey is NCSL's elections mid redistricting expert. Nicole Casal Moore is a writer in NCSL's Public Affairs department.
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Author:Moore, Nicole Casal
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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