GOP Loses Ground in Statehouse Control

By: and - November 5, 2004 12:00 am

Despite across-the-board gains at the federal level, Republicans’ power slipped a bit in the 2004 legislative elections, leaving the GOP with the slimmest of advantages over Democrats in control of the nation’s statehouses.

In the 44 states that held state House and Senate elections, political control flipped in 12 legislative chambers with Democrats snatching majorities in seven, the GOP taking control in four, and the Iowa Senate moving from Republican control to a tie.

As a result, political party control of legislatures for 2005 is nearly evenly split. Republicans will control both chambers in 20 states, the Democrats will have majoritied in the state house and senate in 19 states, and power will be split between the parties in 10 statehouses.

Prior to the election, the GOP had the majority in both chambers in 21 states, Democrats in 17, and power was divided in 11 legislatures. Nebraska has a non-partisan, unicameral Legislature. The change gives Democrats control of two more legislatures.

In an updated election analysis Nov. 5, the National Conference of State Legislatures projected that a historic 64-seat advantage that Republicans earned in nationwide legislative races in 2002 has been wiped out and that Democrats now hold a 10-seat advantage with three legislative races still undecided.

“The parties are still in a perpetual game of political tug-of-war,” said Tim Storey, an elections expert at NCSL. “For the past three years, one side will move the flag an inch, only to lose that ground the next election. It is hard to imagine this parity could get any tighter, but it appears that it has.”

The delicate balance of power has heavy bearing on state legislative agendas and also influences how a governor’s policies play out on statewide issues that can directly impact citizens’ daily lives.

Based on incomplete results compiled by NCSL, Democrats snatched the majorities from Republicans in at least seven chambers: both the Colorado House and Senate, the Montana Senate, the North Carolina House, Oregon Senate, Vermont House and Washington Senate. However, the margin of victory was only one seat in the Colorado Senate.

“Democrats can take some little comfort in these results, because at every other level they’ve had … significant losses,” said political science professor Alan Rothstein at Rutgers University. “The lesson, which is obvious and banal, is that the country is really divided.”

Surprising political observers, Colorado Democrats overcame a nine-seat deficit in the House to take a three-seat majority for control of the lower chamber; Democrats were down one seat in the Senate and now are up one. The power shift may be a sign that Republican Gov. Bill Owen’s political star is fading, said John Straayer, a political scientist at Colorado State University. He said the one-seat edge in House leadership may spark a fresh effort to eliminate the state’s constitutional cap on state taxes and spending, but any such attempt would likely face an uphill battle.

Offsetting those GOP setbacks, however, the Republican Party gained legislative ground in the South. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans will control both houses of the Georgia Legislature; the GOP captured control of the House on Election Day and kept its edge in the Georgia Senate, which it took over in 2002 when four Democratic legislators switched parties. Republicans also won the majority in the Tennessee Senate.

In Oklahoma, where new term limits went into effect this year, the state House switched party control from Democrats to Republicans for the first time since 1922. And Republicans had a big night in Indiana, capturing control of both the legislative and executive branches while also endorsing President George W. Bush. Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels (R) will be welcomed by a newly Republican-controlled House; the Senate kept its GOP majority.

The Iowa state Senate will start the new year locked in an historic 25 to 25 tie.

Meanwhile, Democrats retained advantages in a number of states and managed to pick up a few key seats in states where Republicans still reign.

For example, Democrats kept a firm grip on the Legislature in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) failed to translate his celebrity and popularity into gains for his party. Schwarzenegger raised money and made eleventh-hour sweeps through the Golden State to stump for Republican legislative candidates.

In New York, backed by a cash infusion from billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Democrats picked up one seat in the Republican-controlled state Senate and one seat in the Assembly, which they already control by a large margin, according to NCSL. Two state Senate races are still undecided.

Democratic control of southern statehouses continues to slip because the party has fallen out of step with conservative views on moral and social issues, said Alex Johnson, director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee. The RLCC is a tax-exempt “527” group that supports GOP legislators across the country.

Ballot initiatives outlawing same-sex marriage in Oklahoma and Georgia also may have contributed to GOP gains in those states, Johnson said.

Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a 527 group that supports statehouse Democrats, agreed that his party’s candidates have not done well in socially conservative states. “The environments were very bad for us in places where we lost,” he said.

Republicans managed to hang on to slim majorities in states such as Wisconsin, where they widened their advantage in the state Senate to five seats.

At least eight of the 11 legislative battlegrounds NCSL identified before the election switched control. Those chambers were: Colorado Senate, Georgia House, Indiana House, North Carolina House, Oklahoma House, Oregon House, Vermont House and Washington Senate.

Republicans had made steady gains in state legislatures for the past 25 years, slowly eroding Democratic power. Coming into the 5,804 legislative elections held in 44 states yesterday, the GOP held a slim advantage nationally. Six states Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia did not hold statehouse elections Nov. 2.

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