A Pitched Battle for State Legislatures ; Chambers in 25 States Could Change Majorities with a Tip of Three Seats or Less as Parties Fight Furiously across the Country

Article excerpt

With the media's political Doppler radar fixed squarely on this November's presidential showdown, a less-obvious political battle is taking place that, in several ways, will have a more direct impact on the lives of Americans.

The outcome also could more accurately reflect where voters stand on a spate of domestic issues, from gay marriage to abortion and taxes.

The battle for party control over state legislatures, say experts, is more intense than at any point in recent political memory.

Of the more than 7,000 legislative seats in the US, the GOP holds a slim 60-seat advantage. And of the 50 states, 25 have legislative chambers that could switch party control with a shift of just three seats or less.

In Maine and Colorado, a switch of one seat could reverse longtime party dominance of both legislative and executive branches. While in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, a change in three seats could significantly reshape the poltical path of the South's fastest-growing states.

Several of the nation's key battleground states - Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington - could solidify political alliances for years to come.

"This is a far bigger election year for state legislatures than most," says Tim Story, election analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Because there are so many close votes which could shift party control of legislative chambers, it will likely have an impact on every issue before state government from civil unions to transportation, education, and health care."

This fall's vote will indicate whether Republicans can continue to garner more power in state governments. The 2002 election gave the GOP control of a majority of US legislative seats for the first time in 50 years. (Republicans now control both chambers in 21 states, compared to 18 for Democrats.)

A dramatic gain for Republicans, or a shift towards the Democrats, will not only be a litmus test for national candidates, but could also indicate the overall political leanings of the electorate at the grass roots.

"These crucial, very close races in so many state legislatures are big deal because they will show if the GOP's recent gains continue or move backward," says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "If there is a swing backward, that is important, if it continues, it's historic."

For individual states, a shift in party control usually means a redistribution of power through committee assignments and leadership positions. The party with a majority is able to control which bills are voted on. Powerful leaders are able to quash some legislation altogether, or resurrect other bills that previous parties bottled- up for years.

"The majority party in any legislature has control of the agenda in a profound way," says Elizabeth Garrett, political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. …