Democrats, Republicans More Evenly Matched in Statehouses

By: - November 10, 2000 12:00 am

In a nation where political gridlock is becoming a way of life, the results of Tuesday’s statehouse races left the party composition of state legislatures more balanced than ever.

Democratic losses and Republican gains left each party in control of 17 state legislatures. Prior to Nov. 7, Democrats controlled 19 statehouses, the Republicans 17 and power was split between the parties in 13 states. Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is non-partisan.

On Tuesday, voters in Maine ended Democratic control of that state’s Senate, a development also seen in Missouri. In Vermont, Democrat lawmakers were voted out of the majority in the House.

The 17-17 deadlock marks the first time the two major political parties have controlled the same number of statehouses in the same year, according to Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The story is how amazingly even everything is. It really plays itself out on the (statehouse) level,” Storey says.

On election eve there were 5,918 seats 80 percent of the national total in play nationwide. A shift of three seats or fewer threatened a transfer of party power in the lower houses of Pennsylvania and Washington and in the senates of Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.

In addition to the 34 states where either Democrats or Republicans presently control both houses of the legislature, there are 15 states where control of the two chambers is split between the parties.

Democrats lost an opportunity to maintain power in three states with liberal chief executives; Vermont, where Howard Dean (D) is governor; Missouri, where Democrat Bob Holden is governor-elect; and Maine, where Independent Angus King resides in the governor’s mansion.

In Vermont, GOP politicians grabbed control of the House by riding a wave of resentment against Democrats linked to the nation’s first gay civil unions bill.

Democrats survived challenges to their Senate dominance in Connecticut and Wisconsin, but saw South Carolina voters make history by knotting that state’s Senate 23-23 between Republicans and Democrats, the first time Democrats have lost full control of the chamber since Reconstruction.

South Carolina Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler, a Republican, effectively puts that state’s Senate in the GOP column on close votes, although South Carolina officially remains split.

Republicans surrendered their Senate leads in Arizona and Colorado, both former GOP strongholds. There was positive news for the party in Pennsylvania, though, where Republicans fortified what had been a shaky hold over Pennsylvania’s scandal-scarred House. The GOP also sustained narrow majorities in the Senates of Kentucky and Texas and picked up three seats in Maine’s Senate, allowing the GOP to even the field there.

In another New England state, New Hampshire, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) will now have to work with Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature, after the GOP forged a 13-11 Senate advantage Tuesday. The tally had been 12-12 between Democrats and Republicans.

Legislative outcomes elsewhere generally mirrored the close Democratic vs. Republican dustup playing out in the presidential race.

In Oregon, the Democrats appear to have picked up just one seat in the Senate, reducing the GOP majority to 16-14. That result would leave Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber to deal with more modest GOP leads in each chamber next year.

In Washington, where mail-in balloting has dramatically slowed the election count, Democrats appear to have moved to a 50-48 advantage in the House, breaking a 49-49 tie. Democrats held a 27-22 hold on the Senate before Tuesday, which dwindled to a 25-24 advantage afterward.

In South Dakota, election officials may be forced to hold a recount in four hotly contested races, but Republican control is untouchable in both chambers. The GOP also retained its lock on Alaska’s legislature.

Republicans made modest gains to close wide party gaps in the Democratic legislatures of Arkansas, Hawaii and Oklahoma.

Minnesota Republicans enjoyed consecutive-term dominance of the House for the first time since the 1970s, although Democrats managed to narrow the gap from seven seats to four.

Six states did not hold legislative elections this year. That kept Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland and Mississippi safe for Democrats and New Jersey and Virginia secure for Repubicans, at least until the next election cycle.

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