Elections Bring Blue Wave and New Plans to Statehouses

By: - December 29, 2006 12:00 am

Stateline.org highlights significant state policy developments and trends each year in its State of the States report, available in early January. In the third of a series of excerpts, we look at state politics.

By the time Colorado Gov.-elect Bill Ritter claimed victory in Denver on election night last November, Democrats across the nation were feeling a mile high.

The Democratic Party had won the trifecta of the Colorado governor’s office, the state House and state Senate for the first time in nearly 50 years – and when all the results were in, had swept to power in the U.S. Congress, a majority of governor’s mansions and more legislative chambers than anytime since 1994.

President George W. Bush’s record-low approval ratings and frustration with the war in Iraq made the 2006 midterm elections a wellspring of voter anger. While the presidency wasn’t on the ballot, the elections held huge stakes for state leadership with 36 governors’ offices and 84 percent of legislative seats in 46 states up for grabs.

The election largely reversed gains of the 1994 Republican revolution. Democrats entered 2007 with 28 governors, and Republicans with 22, an exact flip of the pre-election headcount. Democrats are in charge in 23 state legislatures where they control both chambers, four more than before the election. Republicans lost chambers in five states and control both houses in only 15. At the federal level, Democrats took control of Congress: 51-49 in the Senate and 233-202 in the House. (A Florida race was still disputed at press time.)

There were also these political milestones:

• Two incumbent governors – both Republicans – were ousted: Robert Ehrlich Jr. in Maryland’s general election and Frank Murkowski in the Alaska primary.

• Massachusetts made history by electing Democrat Deval Patrick as governor, making him only the second African-American to be elected to a state’s top office. Virginia’s L. Douglas Wilder (D) was the first.

• Alaska elected its first woman governor, Republican Sarah Palin. Nine women now serve as state chief executives, matching the record set in 1994.

• Iowa and New Hampshire, scenes of the earliest presidential primary contests in 2008, both elected Democratic governors and legislatures. Democrats now dominate the statehouse in Iowa for the first time in 40 years and in New Hampshire for the first time since the Civil War.  

The outcome gave Democrats a political edge going into next year’s scramble for the presidency, and strengthened their ability to influence the remapping of congressional and legislative districts after the 2010 census – if not sooner. But it also left them needing to produce results for an electorate that exit polls showed was clearly fed up with partisan bickering and government gridlock.

Many state leaders are drawing lessons from the success of one Republican, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who roared back from a political slump to win re-election by stressing bipartisanship and compromise with a Democratic legislature.

Indeed, practical problem solving is the mantra of leaders of both parties who expect statehouses to remain at the forefront of major national policy innovations.

“It’s time to put partisanship aside. … The American people are looking for results,” Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), told a post-election gathering for freshman governors at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

The governors have moved to position themselves as bipartisan brokers with Congress on such federal-state issues as immigration, Medicaid spending and energy. “When governors speak in one voice, it has a significant impact,” NGA Vice Chairman Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s Republican governor, told Stateline.org .

But state leaders aren’t waiting for Congress to take the lead on problems such as the nation’s broken health care system and global warming.

“Voters wanted results. They wanted people who can reach across party lines, who can work in a bipartisan fashion and get things done,” said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who won re-election with 58 percent of the vote in a state where less than a third of voters are registered Democrats. Her ticket featured a Republican who switched parties to run as her lieutenant governor. 

Eleven new faces were among the 20 Democrats and 16 Republicans elected in November. Three are former state attorneys general. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) succeeded Republican George Pataki, a potential 2008 presidential contender who voluntarily stepped down after 12 years in office. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist became the first Republican since Reconstruction to succeed another GOP governor in Tallahassee – the popular, term-limited Jeb Bush. And Democrat Mike Beebe took over as Arkansas governor from Republican Mike Huckabee, another possible presidential hopeful.  

Three new governors are former congressmen: Democrat Ted Strickland of Ohio and Republicans C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho and Jim Gibbons of Nevada. Six others who had served in Congress lost gubernatorial bids in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

In addition to Palin in Alaska, Ritter in Colorado and Patrick in Massachusetts, the other new governors are Democrats Chet Culver in Iowa and Martin O’Malley in Maryland.

Ritter previously was a Denver prosecutor, Culver was Iowa secretary of state. Palin was mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska, and O’Malley was mayor of Baltimore. Patrick, who served in President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department, was an executive with the Coca-Cola Co.

Post-Election State-Federal Relations

Last year’s midterm election was a watershed for states because it cleared the way for a new beginning in state-federal relations. State leaders hope the turnover in Washington, D.C., will stanch what they regard as an unprecedented expansion of federal power under the second President Bush, a former Texas governor.

“It’s the Republican Party that always talks about states’ rights and the federal government having less to say about it. But on so many important issues, it hasn’t been that way,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who handily won reelection over Republican Lynn Swann, a Hall-of-Fame pro football player.

States have a long political wish list requiring congressional action. Among other things, they want more time and money to comply with the federal Real ID Act of 2005, which was passed to keep driver’s licenses out of terrorists’ hands and make it harder for illegal immigrants to get state issued identification. Unless federal relief is forthcoming, states foresee nightmarish lines at motor vehicle departments and costs as high as billion.

A longer-standing conflict is over the No Child Left Behind Act, Bush’s 2002 education initiative, which is up for revision in 2007. States have challenged the costs of testing required under the law and its method of determining whether schools are making adequate progress.

On the energy front, states are in the forefront of efforts to develop alternative fuels and reduce fossil-fuel emissions blamed for global warming. California’s Schwarzenegger signed a pact with Great Britain last fall to combat greenhouse gases and approved the nation’s toughest restrictions on smokestack emissions linked to climate change. Other governors are promoting greater use of ethanol and new energy derived from coal. These efforts are likely to intensify now that presumably more environment-friendly Democrats are in charge at the U.S. Capitol. “The message to Congress is that we need each other,” Iowa’s Culver said.

Health care is yet another area where stepped-up state policy initiatives are expected. Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine already are moving to see that no state resident is uninsured, and California’s Schwarzenegger has said that is one of his top priorities in his second term. The states will be looking to the federal government for help on programs such as Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, where federal and state roles intersect. “Like welfare reform in the 1990s, if Congress gives states flexibility, they’ll show the pathway to a better future,” Minnesota’s Pawlenty said.

Government Innovation

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once famously described the states as laboratories of democracy, and in the aftermath of last year’s balloting, the states are awash in policy ideas. Florida’s Crist, a Republican with GOP majorities in both houses of the Legislature, is pushing to lower property insurance rates for Florida homeowners. Cutting property taxes and curbing the state’s climbing murder rate are other issues atop Crist’s agenda.

Colorado’s Ritter intends to focus on making higher education more affordable and health care more accessible, but admits neither goal is likely to be realized in the first legislative session. Ritter told Stateline.org he has talked to Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine officials about their health care reforms, in hopes of learning lessons for his state.

Newly re-elected Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) will have a Democratic-controlled state House to work with in 2007. Her party won a majority in that chamber for the first time since 1994. In a state struggling with job losses in the slumping U.S. auto industry, she has proposed a billion plan to cover 500,000 of the more than one million residents without health insurance. She also signaled she will use her new political footing to try to overturn the state’s ban on embryonic stem cell research.

Maryland’s O’Malley said that government performance may sound “ho-hum” but that a responsive and accountable government is crucial “to making government work.” He plans to replicate a government-performance program called “CitiStat” that he piloted as mayor of Baltimore and that in 2004 won an “Innovations in American Government Award” from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

The states are in their best fiscal shape since 2000, providing a window of opportunity for new initiatives. However, the costs of state employee pensions, health care for the uninsured, demands for more education spending and the need to repair crumbling roads and bridges loom on the horizon.

There is also a worry that federal policy-makers will try to ease their deficit headaches at state expense. Less than a month after the November elections, the National Governors Association sent a letter urging the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to “avoid proposals that simply result in savings for the federal government.”

Looming over all of the policy decisions is the 2008 presidential race, the first in more than a half-century without an incumbent president or vice president seeking the office. Historically, the party with more governors has an advantage. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, for example, Democrats held 27 governorships. George W. Bush captured the White House in 2000, when Republican governors were in charge in 31 states.

Ritter’s victory in the Colorado gubernatorial race could have significance for presidential politics if it heralds a reshaping of allegiances in the Rocky Mountain states.

Democratic governors now preside in five of eight mountain states – all carried by Bush in 2004 and all but New Mexico in his column in 2000. The Democratic governors of Arizona, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico helped found a new political organization just after the election to exploit Democratic gains in the region.

The current 28-22 split in favor of the Democrats could change later this year, when governors in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi face re-election. As things stand now, states with Democratic governors command 295 electoral votes, up from 207 before the election and more than the majority of 270 needed to elect a president.

Four of the last five occupants of the nation’s highest office used their record as governor as a springboard to the White House. And several present or former state leaders will try to do so in 2008. In addition to Huckabee, Pataki and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), outgoing Gov. Mitt Romney (R) of Massachusetts is exploring a presidential bid as is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who was handily re-elected in last November.

Ballot Measures

The voters were asked to set state policy by saying yea or nay to 204 proposals on the ballot in 37 states on Nov. 7. The four most newsworthy results came in Arizona, which became the first state to reject a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (seven other states joined the 20 that already had constitutional bans); in Missouri, which approved protections for embryonic stem cell research; in South Dakota, where voters threw out the nation’s most stringent anti-abortion law; and in Michigan, which approved a ban on the racial preferences in college admissions and government hiring known as affirmative action.

Minimum wage increases were approved in all six states where they were on the ballot – Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. That brought to 29 the number of states with a minimum wage higher than the .15-an-hour federal rate set by Congress 10 years ago.

Anti-tax advocates failed to convince voters in Maine, Nebraska and Oregon to impose caps on state government spending. Eight states restricted government power to seize private property under the doctrine of eminent domain. That action came in reaction to a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed a Connecticut town to raze homes to make way for a shopping center.

Political partisans increasingly have tried to use ballot measures to spur turnout at the polls. But voters may be getting leery of initiatives placed on the ballot by citizens’ groups.

Only a third of citizen initiatives won approval in 2006, compared with nearly a 50 percent approval rate between 1990 and 2004, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, voters approved 86 percent of measures put on ballots by legislatures.

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Stateline staff
Stateline staff

Stateline’s team of veteran journalists combines original reporting with a roundup of the latest news from sources around the country.