2004 Elections Set Up Year of Legislative Stalemate

By: - November 15, 2004 12:00 am

They’re still counting votes in Washington state, but elsewhere the results of the November elections are clear: 2005 will bring another year of divided state government and likely more legislative gridlock.

This year’s elections also are expected to change the way state-level campaigns are run in the future, as both parties expect key statehouse races to garner more attention and money from outside political groups, commonly known as “527s.”

The fight for partisan control in statehouses across the country is tighter now than before the election. In 21 states, the party in control of statehouse chambers in 2005 will have a lead of only four seats or fewer. And in 29 states, the governor will have to work with legislative chambers that are either split or both controlled by the opposing party.

The Washington governor’s race between Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) and Dino Rossi (R) remained too close to call, with the state Democratic party considering legal challenges. Democrats won control of both chambers in the state legislature.

“Divided government is here to stay,” said Tim Storey, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Parties and leaders have a choice: Either cooperate or get nothing done. I think that is what we will be looking for over the next couple months.”

Democrats made slight gains in the total number of statehouse seats nationwide, essentially taking back some of the seats the party lost in the 1990s. Republicans will control both chambers in 20 states while the Democrats will have a majority in the both house and senate in 19 states. Before the election, Republicans had a 21 to 17 lead.

“At the state legislative level, the Democrats definitely had a better night last week than their counterparts at the congressional and certainly presidential levels,” said Duane Parde, executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington, D.C.-based association for conservative state lawmakers.

Term limits and new political maps from redistricting helped to flip control of at least four of the 12 chambers that switched parties. In Oklahoma, where new term limits went into effect this year, the state house switched party control from Democrat to Republican for the first time since 1922. Some 260 legislators in 12 states were banned from seeking re-election, said Keon Chi, an elections expert at the Council of State Governments.

New political maps in Georgia, Montana and North Carolina helped parties wrest control. Democrats snatched the majorities from Republicans in the Montana Senate and the North Carolina House and, for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans will control both houses of the Georgia Legislature. “Redistricting is the number one factor that will determine who controls the legislature,” NCSL’s Storey said.

“Party competition is more severe these days,” Chi of CSG said. “There will be more gridlock, particularly in the budget process.”

Republican gains at the state level were primarily in the South and Midwest, continuing a trend of the past few years, while Democrats picked up a sizable number of seats in Colorado, Minnesota, Washington and Vermont.

Michael Davies, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) said Democrats who won at state level did so by running on local issues, such as education, health care and jobs. State Democrats also won by fending off GOP efforts to “nationalize” state elections by targeting terrorism or moral issues, such as gay marriage. The DLCC provides campaign advice and money to Democratic leaders and candidates at the state legislative level.

Maryland State Rep. John Hurson, who also is NCSL president, credited some of the Democrats’ success at the state level to Republican “bloodletting” in the primaries when the GOP nominated candidates who Hurson said were more conservative than voters are willing to accept. That appears to be the case in Colorado, where conservative Republicans in the Denver suburbs beat out moderates in the primary but lost in the general election.

Parde of ALEC attributed Democrats’ takeover of both chambers in Colorado to the large sums of money poured into the state from supposedly independent political organizations known as “527s,” which are created specifically to raise unlimited money for political activities.

Such 527 groups as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and MoveOn.org grabbed a lot of headlines in this campaign trying to sway the presidential election, but political experts from both parties expect 527s to play a bigger role in state races in the future.

In Colorado, 527 groups targeted some state-level races as well as the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Pete Coors.

“There is an enormous amount of money in some of our states, at the state level, and I think it’s a problem,” New Jersey state Rep. Joe Kyrillos (R) said during a Nov. 5 post-election conference sponsored by NCSL. “I think we will see more of it and I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for the process, for representative democracy,” said Kyrillos, who also chairs the New Jersey Republican State Committee.

This year, the Republican and Democratic governors’ associations ranked as the two biggest players in garnering millions of dollars in so-called “soft money” contributions from corporations and labor groups to help sway state elections.

NCSL President Hurson agreed that 527s would try to influence more statehouse races. “In some cases, it’s becoming a scandal hopefully not in Maryland, hopefully not in my district,” he joked.

Parde said the shakeout in Colorado also could affect the movement to limit taxes. Colorado, considered a model state by anti-tax activists, was one of four states where voters approved ballot measures to increase taxes and target the money to specific programs. Voters turned down three measures to limit taxes. “I think you’ll see a lot more initiatives to increase state spending,” Parde said.

Jennie Bowser, who tracks ballot measures at NCSL, said she was surprised that this year’s crop of tax-limit measures largely failed while tax increase initiatives passed. “The tax limit movement is starting to sputter,” she said. 

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