Parties Battle for Control of Statehouses

By: - September 12, 2008 12:00 am

Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are in the national spotlight as states that could swing either Republican or Democrat in November’s presidential elections. But they are also among the top 10 battleground states where political control could turn over in at least one chamber of the state legislature, according to a new analysis.

In its list of states that most face the possibility of flipping partisan control released Thursday (Sept. 11), the National Conference of State Legislatures also included states off the national radar, such as Delaware and New York. Indiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee were also pegged by NCSL as top legislative battleground states.

This November, Democrats are trying to hold on to – and maybe even expand – their highest percentage of state lawmakers nationally since 1994. Democrats won most of the races considered “low-hanging fruit” last election cycle and now control 55 percent of legislative seats nationwide – the most since the Republican wave in 1994 when GOP state candidates took over more than 500 legislative seats across the country, Tim Storey, a senior fellow at NCSL said.

But about 79 percent of all state legislative seats are up for election this fall. Democrats will have a tough time making big gains in 2008 as they did two years ago, Storey said.

The stakes are high. Not only do lawmakers direct policy in their own states, they also set the stage for congressional politics because, in most cases, state legislators draw congressional maps once a decade after the U.S. Census. The first wave of legislators who will take part in the 2011 redistricting process – senators in states with four-year senatorial terms – will be elected this fall.

One of the biggest potential prizes for Democrats is the New York Senate. The upper chamber is Republicans’ last bastion of power in Albany; losing it would give Democrats complete control of state government.
Even though the stakes are high, control of the Senate could hinge on issues as basic as bus routes, local development and the cost of electricity in Queens.

The Democrats are looking to Queens for one of their best chances of ousting incumbent Republicans. There, New York City council member Joseph Addabbo, Jr., son of a late congressman, is trying to oust state Sen. Serf Maltese (R) in a district that included the house that appeared in the “All in the Family” sitcom.

The area, once dominated by Italian American families, has seen an influx of new residents from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Like New York state in general, the area is also becoming increasingly Democratic.

Addabbo, the Democrat, has tried to drum up support by touting his response, as a council member, to flooding that caused blackouts in Queens last year. He has opposed proposed hikes in bus fares, and championed the plight of Howard Beach residents overcome with the smell of dead fish, as thousands of dead Atlantic bunker fish wash ashore.

Maltese, his opponent, has railed against graffiti that plagues the area. On Thursday, he went to court to urge a judge to keep a man charged with three felonies for graffiti behind bars instead of releasing him on bail.

Both men are also pledging new money for New York City schools and vowing to combat “overdevelopment,” where new apartment and condominium buildings strain the roads and sewers of neighborhoods traditionally dominated by family homes.

Their campaigns acknowledge the race’s outcome could affect the balance of power in Albany.

“Republicans have had 40 years to improve things. They have failed to improve life for the middle class New Yorkers who are leaving the city in droves,” said Addabbo spokeswoman Alexis Grenell.

But Kristin Lord, speaking for Maltese, said the Democratic-led Assembly hasn’t fared any better in the famously gridlocked state capitol than the Republicans. “What we try to tell the voters is we need a balance of power, and the senator’s record is a pretty solid record for the people,” she said.

Local issues in several states will play a key role in attempts to take over legislative chambers.

Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee , a nationwide group dedicated to getting Democratic state lawmakers elected, said the focus on local issues is intentional.

“For Democrats running for the state legislature, we stress running a local campaign, not what’s going on in Washington, D.C.,” he said. The approach helped Democrats take over chambers in Colorado, North Carolina and Montana in 2004, even though the party’s presidential candidate lost, Sargeant said.

Republican strategists said the local focus also insulates them from anti-GOP national trends.

“A lot of folks get caught up in the national elections from 2006 (when Democrats took control of Congress) with the wave of Democratic or anti-incumbent sentiment. We didn’t see that down ticket,” said Carrie Cantrell, a spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Among the states on the NSCL’s list, Pennsylvania is grappling with a scandal nicknamed “Bonusgate” which engulfed the House Democratic caucus and threatens their fragile majority (a Republican is already speaker).

In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) appears comfortably ahead in his re-election bid, and his successful efforts to impose property tax relief could affect House Republicans’ efforts to re-take the chamber they lost in 2006.

And Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons’ (R) messy divorce and other scandals could play a role in two key Las Vegas-area state senate races where incumbent Republicans face strong challenges, said Eric Herzik, chair of the University of Nevada – Reno’s department of political science.

Two chambers are currently tied – the Oklahoma and Tennessee senates – and either side could be victorious.

Even as local issues dominate, both parties are hoping their national tickets will give them a boost. The Democrats drawn-out presidential primary contest attracted many new voters, while Republicans say the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as U.S. Sen. John McCain’s running mate energized GOP voters.

Among the Democrats’ other best chances of taking over Republican-held chambers, NCSL’s Storey said, are:

  • Delaware House The First State has increasingly been leaning Democratic. The governor’s office is in play this year, as Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) must step aside because of term limits. But longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden’s pick as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate could boost Democratic turnout.
  • Montana House The House is the only chamber in the country to switch from Democratic hands to GOP control in the last election cycle; before 2006, it was actually tied. Popular Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is up for re-election, which could help his party’s fortunes.
  • Nevada Senate Republicans hold a 11-10 edge in the Senate. But Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is concentrating on winning the state, and GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons suffers from low popularity because of a the uproar over his divorce – in which he and his wife argued over which of them should live in the governor’s mansion – and other scandals.
  • Ohio House Republicans still control both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly, but Democrats stormed to power in a near-sweep of statewide offices in 2006 in the wake of a series of scandals about the state workers’ compensation system. Term limits also mean more mandatory retirements for Republican House members than Democrats.
  • Wisconsin House Democrats took control of the Senate in 2006; Republicans hold a five-seat advantage in the House.

Republicans, on the other hand, have a good shot at winning majorities from Democrats in several states:

  • Indiana House Democrats won control of the chamber in 2006, in part, because of opposition to Daniels’ moves to impose Daylight Savings Time and lease the Indiana Toll Road. But the Indiana House is one of the chambers in the country to most frequently switch control, and Daniels, who is running for re-election this year, recovered by pushing through a property tax relief measure.
  • Montana Senate Democrats hold a 26-24 edge in the chamber, but more Democratic seats than Republican slots are in jeopardy, largely because of retirements.
  • Pennsylvania House Democrats have a majority here, but a Republican holds the speaker’s gavel. Although “Bonusgate” has tarnished the reputation of many House Democrats, Pennsylvania’s role as a presidential battleground could affect the legislative races.
  • Wisconsin Senate Republicans lost the Senate in 2006, but the chamber’s Democrats couldn’t pass many of their more ambitious goals, including universal health care, during last session.

Forty-four states will hold legislative contests this fall. Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia don’t have legislative elections this year. In Michigan and Minnesota, state senators are not up for re-election, but members of the lower house are.

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