State Lawmakers Opting Out of 2002 Races

By: - June 14, 2002 12:00 am

Although it’s hard to predict what the final numbers will be, early indications are that state legislatures will experience at least a 25 percent turnover this year, which would be about five-to- seven percent higher than normal. That means that at least 1,553 of 6,214 representatives and senators up for re-election will be stepping down.

Of that number, only 330 in 11 states are being forced out by term limits. Michigan and Missouri will be hardest hit, losing a total of 138 lawmakers between them. It’s unclear how many lawmakers nationwide are choosing not to run again because their districts have been redrawn using 2000 census population data.

“Turnover in redistricting years is normally about 25 percent, so that’s probably what you can expect this year,” says Tim Storey, political analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“A lot of it is just normal retirement and term limits…but there is the frustration and challenge of having a completely new (redrawn) district to contend with. Some lawmakers just say, Hey, I don’t want to work 10 times as hard as I normally do to get re-elected.'”

That may have been the case with Republican Rep. Eldon Mulder of Alaska, who was in line to become Speaker of the House after the fall elections. Faced with a redrawn district that includes Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, he decided to retire rather than face Republican Rep. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary.

The match-up promised to be one of the most competitive races of the year given Mulder’s leadership prospects and Murkowski’s name recognition. (She’s the daughter of U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski.) Mulder withdrew from the race, citing his desire for a calmer family life.

“He pretty much decided that he was tired of shuffling his family around,” said Dennis DeWitt, Mulder’s chief of staff. “If he had decided to stay, there was a strong possibility that he would have been speaker. I think (giving up that opportunity) troubles him most, but his family came first…His decision made life a lot easier for a lot of people.”

Family considerations are the primary reason state politicians give for choosing not to run again, according to reports from around the country. In Minnesota, for example, 31 out of 134 House members have announced plans to step down. Nearly all cite family as the motivating factor.

But a handful of lawmakers offer other reasons. In Wisconsin, 12-year veteran Democratic Rep. Marty Reynolds bowed out earlier this month saying he was “fed up” with partisan politics and the influence of major campaign donors on government.

Most of the lawmakers who plan to retire have already made their intentions known. But in a handful of states some lawmakers are still awaiting the outcome of court fights over redistricting before making a final decision.

Redrawn districts are still being contested in Arizona, Kansas, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia.

Those cases are also affecting the primary schedules in some states. The North Carolina primary, which was supposed to take place in May, has been postponed until a remap challenge is resolved. In Kansas, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh says there is a 50 percent chance the August primary will have to be delayed because of redistricting disputes. And in Virginia, which held legislative elections last year, state courts are considering whether to order a special House election this year based on the newly redrawn districts.

Partisan control of the state legislatures could be riding on the final outcome of the court challenges. At the moment Democrats control 18 legislatures to the Republicans’ 17. Fourteen are split. Nebraska, which has the only unicameral legislature in the country, is nominally non-partisan but Republican dominated.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.