2008 State Elections: What’s at stake?

By: - August 19, 2008 12:00 am

The historic battle for the White House may be grabbing most of the headlines, but plenty of state races and major ballot measures also could be nail-biters this November – and the results could have national implications.

Stateline.org today is launching a new 2008 interactive guide to help voters keep track of the 11 gubernatorial, 11 attorneys general and seven secretary of state races and more than 100 high-profile statewide ballot measures that range from rolling back affirmative action and banning same-sex marriage to legalizing assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

Our guide currently includes 133 statewide questions, including 15 that are still pending certification or facing legal challenge, but there could be more on the slate come November. Several states, including Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio, are still verifying signatures and validating initiatives, so check back here often. We will update and add to this guide through Election Day, Nov. 4.

Democrats hope to build on their 28-22 control of governorships and 23-14 command of state legislatures. This year, the prize for Democrats would be taking control of the Missouri governorship, a key presidential swing state, and the New York Senate.

Republicans have their eye on winning the top executive seat in Washington and taking back control of New Hampshire and Iowa statehouses.

The guide also shows which parties currently control the governorships and other statewide offices and legislatures.

All but New Hampshire and Vermont have held their state primaries, so state candidates are officially on the ballot in most places. Besides the contests for statewide offices, some 5,800 legislative seats also are up in statehouse races in all but six states. Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia do not hold legislative elections this November.

On the gubernatorial front, voters in Washington went to the polls Aug. 19 for a historic statewide primary that sets up the wildly anticipated rematch of the 2004 contest. Facing off again are Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) and her Republican challenger Dino Rossi, who lost by just 133 votes in the country’s closest gubernatorial election in U.S. history and surely one of the most bitterly contested.

For the first time in its history, Washington voters used a “top two primary,” which allows the top two vote-getters in state primaries to advance to the general election, even if those candidates are members of the same party. Louisiana has a similar primary system.

Republicans hope the arrangement, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in March and approved by Washington voters by ballot measure in 2004, will help Rossi, since it clears the field of other candidates. In 2004, a Libertarian candidate won 63,000 votes, many of which the GOP thinks would have gone to Rossi and put him, not Gregoire, into the governor’s mansion.

Delaware and Vermont hold their state primaries Sept. 9.

The race for the open governor’s seat in Missouri is shaping up as a knockdown, drag-out fight between Jay Nixon, the state’s Democratic attorney general, and Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof to succeed Gov. Matt Blunt (R), who opted not to run again. And in North Carolina, polls are showing Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) just about even with her Republican challenger, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory to fill the seat vacated by term-limited Gov. Mike Easley (D).

Among the 11 races for attorneys general, Ohio will hold a special election also on Nov. 4 to fill the seat vacated when Marc Dann (D) resigned amid the scandal of a sexual harassment investigation.

So far, no single issue has emerged to dominate statewide ballot measures, unlike in 2004 when gay marriage bans were voted on in 11 states, or in 2006, when minimum wage was on six state ballots and property rights on 12.

But divisive social issues will appear in several states and the results in some cases could have national implications. If Californians decide to ban gay marriage Nov. 4, they could question the legality of thousands of same-sex marriages, including those of out-of-state couples who flocked to California to legally marry after the state became the second to legalize gay marriage on May 15, 2008. And voters in South Dakota could once again challenge the landmark abortion case of Roe v. Wade , if they approve a measure to ban abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the mother’s health. Voters in 2006 overrode a law that would have banned abortion in that state.

Other issues being decided on the state level resonate nationally as well. Michigan voters may be asked to end a 30-year-old ban on stem-cell research that destroys human embryos, a controversial issue that has been debated in every statehouse in the country. Ohioans may decide whether sick workers should be guaranteed paid leave, which was a hot topic in several statehouses this year and is a top priority for organized labor.

Voters in some states will have weightier ballots than others. Coloradoans could have the longest ballot of all, with some 19 possible questions if seven pending measure pass legal muster. Voters there will take on questions regarding abortion and affirmative action, but will consider deleting outdated parts of their state constitution, including the ban of “spirituous liquors.”

Besides questions on gay marriage and parental notification of abortion, Californians will have 10 other questions, including whether to prevent farms from raising hens in cages.

Stateline.org intern Leah Szarek contributed to this report.

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