Election 98: Which Way Will It Tilt?

By Hansen, Karen; Rhyme, Nancy | State Legislatures, September 1998 | Go to article overview
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Election 98: Which Way Will It Tilt?


Hansen, Karen, Rhyme, Nancy, State Legislatures


Hardly anyone bothered to vote in the primary elections, which means voters are either content or wholly dissatisfied, depending on your perspective. But it takes only a slight tilt in November to significantly change the legislative landscape.

Yes, there will be an election Nov. 3. And no, the voters don't seem to care. With the economy sailing along at a clip, no national concerns energizing voters, scads of uncontested seats and primary turnout at a discouraging 16.9 percent, politics is not on the minds of voters.

No issues, no interest, no clamor for change. The 1998 election could be a big yawn. But it shouldn't be - certainly not on the state level. The most important domestic policy decisions are being made, not by Congress, but by state legislatures. And they will continue to be over the next two years. Yet a survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts this summer showed Americans to be distanced and disengaged from their government. That study seemed reinforced by one of the lowest turnouts in primary elections this century.

A midyear election traditionally means a loss for the president's party that reaches down to state legislative races. At the beginning of this campaign season that old axiom seemed to be challenged. Congressional Democrats beat Republicans in polls, indicating they might take back control of the House. But as the summer heat burned on, polls showed that voters are content with the status quo, and Republicans were predicting that they would pick up at least 10 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

Things are not, in fact, much different than they were in the summer of 1994, the last midterm election when some states saw historically low primary votes. On Election Day, Republicans threw a knockout punch that gave the GOP its biggest state legislative victory in 28 years. Republicans went into the election controlling eight legislatures and came out of the election with 19. Democrats rebounded some in 1996, taking control of 20 legislatures to the Republicans' 19, with 10 split. Now Republicans are hoping their party faithful will vote in larger numbers on Election Day and produce another GOP rout. That, according to political observers, is not likely.

"As far as we can tell in July, we don't see any evidence of any powerful forces causing any major constituency to stay home, or turn out in huge numbers like the gun owners did in '94," says William Schneider, political analyst for CNN.

"This is the flat earth election - absolutely flat. This is about the best election for incumbents I've ever seen.

"It would not take much of a tilt to tip things toward tile Democrats this year. But at the moment there isn't any tilt. At the moment it's just like '96, incumbents look tremendously strong."

And Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate said the election, echoing tile Pew study, is "not about voter satisfaction." Rather, it's about "feeling disengaged from the process, or feeling that their parties don't represent them, or feeling turned off by the way we conduct our campaigns, or not being educated to participate."

"The highest turnouts in our country were when people were well satisfied." That hasn't been the case since 1933 to the mid-1960s.

In state legislative races, the stakes are high. A total of 6,169 out of 7,424 seats are up for election in 47 states. In 13 states, chambers are tied or so close a mere three seats or less would shift control. Thirty-seven chambers are within five seats or less of changing party dominance. Going into the election, Democrats control the legislature in 20 states, Republicans control 19, and 10 states are split.

This is the year to prove once again the adage "all politics is local."

Vouchers in Wisconsin, a $4.4 billion surplus in California, the economy in Hawaii, school funding in Arizona, stadium financing in Connecticut, interesting gubernatorial races in North Carolina and Georgia.

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