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The election in perspective.

Republicans made modest gains in 1992 state legislative elections. They captured control of nine new legislative chambers, while Democrats took over two senates previously controlled by Republicans. Nationwide, Democrats had a net loss of 150 seats or 2 percent (pending outcomes of undecided races). Democrats now control both chambers in 25 states, Republicans rule both houses in eight states and 16 are split. Democrats control 65 chambers, Republicans 29, three are tied (Florida Senate, Pennsylvania Senate, and Michigan House) and Nebraska's unicameral is nonpartisan.


These short-term changes in state legislatures are best understood in the context of long-term trends in legislative elections.


A look at the Democratic party's share of state legislative seats over time suggests three conclusions. First, across the entire nation, the proportion of seats held by Democrats remains remarkably constant. With the exception of the post-Watergate elections of 1974 and 1976 and the Johnson landslide of 1964--years in which the Democrats' ascendancy soared temporarily--the Democratic share of seats has stayed within three points of 60 percent in every election since 1960.

Second, this Democratic dominance is due primarily to the party's historic, built-in advantage in the South. However, the Democratic share in the South has declined steadily since 1976, and today Republican legislators hold nearly 30 percent of the seats in that region. This compares with less than 10 percent for Southern Republicans 30 years ago and only 17 percent 10 years ago. In the 1992 elections Republicans captured 43 percent of the seats in the Florida and Virginia legilatures and 40 percent in South Carolina and Texas. Before the end of this decade, we can expect to see Republicans controlling one or more chambers in these Southern states. Within a few years, most Southern legislatures--where formerly one could rarely find a minority caucus or someone with the title of minority leader--will be organized on a partisan basis, much like their Northern colleagues.

Third, outside the South, state legislative elections are much more competitive. The margin is 53 percent to 47 percent in favor of the Democrats. Republicans last held the majority of seats outside the South after the 1984 election. In the 1980s, Republicans held the majority of legislative seats in the West three times and in the Midwest twice. In the 1992 elections, Republicans picked up seats in every region of the country. They gained the most in the Midwest and South.

Women and Minorities

Women continued their steady, if unspectacular, increase in the share of state legislative seats. The number of legislative districts won by women has increased 1 or 2 percentage points in every election since 1970 from 4 percent two decades ago to just over 20 percent (1,503 members) after the 1992 election. Mirroring the totals for all legislative seats, slightly more than 60 percent of women legislators are Democrats. Perhaps most important, women constitute more than 30 percent of the membership of legislatures in seven states: Washington (38 percent), Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho and Maine (31 percent). In these states women have achieved a "critical mass," and their presence significantly affects the style and work of the legislature. By contrast, women won less than 10 percent of constituencies in Kentucky (4 percent), Alabama, Louisiana and Oklahoma (9 percent). Women candidates have the greatest success in Western and New England states and the least in the traditional culture of Southern states.

Blacks made substantial gains in state legislatures in the 1992 elections, especially in the South. Nationally, they gained 79 seats over what they held after the 1990 elections. In Mississippi, blacks gained 18 seats and now have 42 members or 24 percent of the total body. Other states where blacks won more than 15 percent of the election contests are Louisiana (1991 elections), Alabama, Georgia, Maryland (1990 elections) and South Carolina.

Across the country, blacks now occupy nearly 7 percent of legislative seats, up from 2 percent in 1970 and from 6 percent after the 1990 elections. These gains were in large part a result of redistricting and the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act which in effect require that district lines must be drawn to maximize minority representation. Interestingly, this requirement has the obverse effect of improving Republican chances in states with large black populations: By packing districts with blacks, the surrounding suburban districts become more Republican.


Membership Turnover

Turnover in the membership of state legislatures is always substantially higher in redistricting electrions than in other years. Not only do new district lines cause incumbents to lose more often, they also inspire more voluntary retirements by veteran legislators who fear they cannot win in their new constituencies or don't want to make the effort. In the redistricting years of 1972 and 1982, national average turnover in the membership of lower houses of state legislatures was 38 percent and 32 percent, respectively. These national averages mask a number of extremes. In the 1972 election, two states had more than a 60 percent change in membership, and in four lower houses more than half the members were new. In 1982 one state had a majority of freshman members and five had over 40 percent. By contrast, in the four elections of 1984 through 1990 when district boundaries did not change, average membership turnover in lower houses was only 21 percent.


Turnover in state legislatures has been declining steadily over the last two decades. In the chart, peaks show for the redistricting years of 1972, 1982 and 1992. Membership change in lower houses in 1992 was 29 percent across the nation. In the rest of the 1990s we can expect turnover to level out in the range of 20 percent to 25 percent.

States experiencing the greatest rates of change in membership were Wyoming (55 percent) and Alaska (55 percent). South Dakota and Arizona will also have more than 40 percent new members in their 1993 legislative sessions. Freshmen legislatiors in these states will be pushed rapidly into positions of responsibility for which they have little preparation or experience, and extra pressure will be placed on veteran leaders and members.

Turnover rates were less than 20 percent in New Mexico (lowest at 16 percent), Hawaii, Tennessee, New York, Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Delaware, Indiana and Massachusetts. It is not surprising that the highest rates of change occurred in states where legislatures are traditional in style--part-time, small staff and relatively lowpaid--while those with the least turnover, with a few exceptions (most notably Arkansas), tend to be much more professionalized. State legislators who spend more time in session have greater staff resources and are relatively well-paid; they have more incentives to remain in the legislature and greater ability to get re-elected.

New limitations on legislative terms of office, now law in 15 states, will have an effect on turnover rates. This was evident in the 1992 election in California. In the California Assembly, one of the most professionalized legislative bodies in which turnover averaged only 15 percent in the 1980s, there will be 27 new members (34 percent) as a result of the 1992 elections. This high rate of change was due in part to legislative redistricting and the congressional reapportionment that gave California seven more seats in Congress. But career decisions by California legislators were also affected by the impending specter of term limits that will force any member of the Assembly elected before 1992 out of office at the end of 1996. California legislators who wish to continue their careers in elected office are already looking for chances to run for other offices. There was a large increase in voluntary departures from the California Assembly in this election.

Redistricting was the big story of the 1992 state legislative elections. It led to significantly greater black representation, increased turnover in the membership, gave women more opportunities by creating more open seats and helped Republicans narrow the Democratic margin, especially in the South.

But the time series of data presented here suggests another, more subtle point. State legislative elections are increasingly insulated from national, or even statewide, political trends. This trend is evident in two ways in these data. Not since Watergate nearly 20 years ago has a national trend (e.g., the Reagan landslide of 1984) resulted in major gains or losses for one party in state legislative elections. Turnover in state legislative membership shows a long-term decline and, while membership change was up in 1992, it did not increase as much as in previous redistricting years. In short, incumbents win most elections, if they choose to run.

This increasing insulation of legislative races from national forces is a result of a number of factors. Strong party identification by voters has decreased and split-ticket voting has increased over a long period of time. In a dozen or so states, incumbent legislators have electoral advantages of personal staff, district offices, mailing allowances and media resources similar to those of members of Congress, although on a smaller scale. In most states, though, legislators do not have these advantages; their electoral success derives from their own ability (which helped them win election in the first place) and their experience in running races and knowing state policy issues. Also, as legislatures become more attractive places in which to serve because of professionalization and their growing importance in the federal system, more incumbents choose to run for re-election and thereby reduce the chances of challengers and increase the stability of the membership.


Three Split Chambers Cause Party Woes

Split chambers are some kind of headache. Wrangling, negotiations, fishing expeditions, promises, threats--they all come into play in attempting to resolve party control. There are three tied chambers today--the Florida Senate, the Michigan House and the Pennsylvania Senate. At press time, only one had resolved the thorny problem of party control.

After three days of negotiations in every corner of the Capitol and nine deadlocked votes, Florida senators came up with a solution to their tie. They divided the two-year leadership term in half. Ander Crenshaw, the first Republican Senate president in Florida since Reconstruction, will take the reins in 1993. Pat Thomas, the Democrat, is the president pro tem who will take the gavel in October 1993 and preside through 1994. Crenshaw is continuing a family tradition of sorts. He is the son-in-law of former Governor Claude Kirk, the first Republican ever elected governor in Florida.

As part of their agreement, Florida senators are dividing committee membership equally and Crenshaw tendered a letter of resignation effective in October. The Senate also passed a rule requiring the pro tem to automatically ascend to the presidency, and another rule requiring a unanimous vote to change the ascendancy rule.

Most observers believe that such an arrangement would never work in Michigan where politics are particularly partisan. For a couple of heady days, House Republicans believed they had taken control for the first time since 1968. But 100 uncounted ballots in a Detroit suburb shifted the House into a tie.

Both parties are seeking the member or members of the opposition willing to switch their votes on the speakership or simply walk off the floor when the vote comes up. The Democrats have a lot to lose if they can't organize the House. Both the governor's office and the Senate are in GOP hands. So Democrats in the final days of the 1992 session succeeded in pushing through two rule changes. One requires a majority of those elected and serving to vote on every rule change, not a majority of those present and voting. The other requires the party previously in the majority to take control in case of a tie if neither party can garner 56 votes (there are 110 members in the House). The state's newspapers have universally panned that idea, and Republicans are prepared to go to court on it.

Then there's the question of the 100 votes that showed up the day after the election. Republicans suspect some irregularities there and may seek a new election in the disputed district. Meanwhile, Democrats plan to ask for five recounts where they lost by razor-thin margins.

In Pennsylvania, the fortunes of Senate Democrats rested with a member elected as a Republican two years ago. He voted often with the opposition and switched paries to run for Congress as a Democrat, a race he lost. Republicans hoped he would be seated with the GOP, ensuring them a 24-26 margin, rather than a tied House. But he opted for the Democrats, who hastily ousted longtime Republican President Pro Tem Robert Jubelier on a 25-24 vote. A judge waiting in the wings slipped on a borrowed robe and swore in Robert Mellow as the new leader. Republicans are headed for court, saying 26 votes are necesary to elect a leader.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; trends in state legislative elections
Author:Kurtz, Karl T.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Our young people don't know right from wrong.
Next Article:Top issues for 1993: budget, education, health care.

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