Statehouse Elections 2006: The End of Parity?

By: - July 7, 2006 12:00 am

All eyes will be on the states this November, when 85 percent of legislative seats and 36 governor’s mansions are up for grabs. Will this be a status quo year in which parity entrenches itself even deeper? Or will it be a dramatic cycle when one party swings big to solidify clear dominance?

Today, state legislatures are almost perfectly divided between red and blue. Republicans have a majority in both chambers of the legislature in 20 states, and Democrats in 19. In 10 states, control is divided. Democrats have a symbolic advantage of holding a few more legislative seats nationwide than the Republicans, but that margin is less than 1 percent of America’s 7,382 state legislative seats.

In 17 state senates, a shift of only three seats would put a new party in power. In 12 state houses, a shift of five or fewer seats would change control. In Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Tennessee, both chambers are vulnerable to change based on the numbers.

This parity is an old story. Since 1994, the two major parties have been within four legislatures of each other in terms of control. But there were some wild fluctuations between the ’60s and the ’90s, and some analysts, including CNN’s Bill Schneider, are predicting 2006 could be reminiscent of one of those pendulum years: ’94, ’74, ’66 and ’64.

Schneider has said it could end up like 1994, when a shocking 500 state legislative seats went from D to R. Like now, the party in the White House wasn’t enjoying stellar reviews. President Bill Clinton’s attempt at universal health care had failed. The country was in recession. And Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America” stole the show in Congress and state legislatures. In State Legislatures magazine, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour called it “the largest midterm election majority sweep of the century.”

The current state of national affairs has some things in common with other years of upheaval. The Jack Abramoff scandal certainly doesn’t have the reach of Watergate, but it’s an ethics scandal, and polls have shown that it has soured the public on elected officials. In the 1974 election after Watergate, Democrats won 628 seats, giving them control of a full 37 state legislatures. Eight were divided and the GOP had only four.

And war, too, has historically had an effect on elections. The Democrats gained 528 seats in the 1964 Johnson landslide election, only to lose them — and then some — two years later as Vietnam escalated. In 1966, Republicans seized back 762 state legislative seats.

There are factors at play in the country today that could cause a major realignment: low approval ratings for the president, voter distrust in elected officials, and a divisive war. But my sense is that they will have a smaller, rather than larger effect on this year’s elections. I expect that this will be a more typical election year, with about 10 chambers changing hands. That’s a little less than the average 12. And if the election were held tomorrow, there are signs the Republicans would have more to lose.

In the 42 special elections held in the past six months, 13 seats changed parties. In 11 of those 13 races, Democrats took seats from Republicans. In only two cases did Republicans win a seat occupied by a Democrat.

Add history to this and the forecast gets cloudier for the R’s. In every midterm election but one since 1938, the party of the president has lost legislative seats. (George W. Bush was the only president yet to buck this trend in 2002. We’ll see if he can do it again.)

While these are interesting statistics to think about, we’ll just have to wait and see whether they accurately predict anything. The bottom line is that “all politics is local,” as the late U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill was fond of saying. This can clearly be seen in recent legislative primary elections in Indiana, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. Unique factors will be at play in each state, and legislative district.

William T. Pound is the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization based in Denver that provides research and policy assistance for legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories.

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