- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Even as candidates for state legislatures stake campaigns in familiar territory — jobs, schools, taxes — some races have broadened to include issues that a few years ago would never have been on their agendas.

Some of the tightest legislative races in Colorado, and to a lesser extent in states such as Iowa and North Carolina, include debate over what to do about illegal aliens, long considered the responsibility of the federal government.

In a number of states, particularly in the West, candidates are having broad debates over property rights and government’s power of eminent domain. More legislative candidates are talking to voters about how they will work to improve access to health care.

“They’re trying to make it a huge wedge issue,” said state Rep. Jim Riesberg, a Democrat from Greeley, Colo., of ads run by Republican interest groups criticizing his stand on immigration.

“Now I’m being accused of a lot of things that are really national issues. I’m being accused of wanting to give amnesty, of wanting to give Social Security to illegal aliens, of not closing our borders. … Television, radio, fliers. They’ve used them all.”

His opponent, Dave Owen, a Republican state senator leaving that office because of term limits, said all the talk about immigration is a response to voter concerns, even though the state legislature has already dedicated a special session to the issue.

“It’s a big issue,” he said. “I get calls on it. I go to the candidates’ forum and all that and it’s brought up all the time. It’s still on voters’ minds.”

The talking points of legislative candidates vary significantly by state.

In Michigan, where a depressed auto industry has fanned fears of job cuts, candidates across the state are focused on what to do to mend the economy.

In Pennsylvania, voter anger over lawmakers’ passage of raises for themselves last year has led to politicking by candidates who say they will do better and work to make government more transparent.

For all the campaign rhetoric, analysts say that the outcome of state legislative races will still largely be shaped by personalities and connections, the power of incumbency and the ability to spend, in elections with traditionally low turnout.

“Honestly, I do not hear that [the economy] is really determining who wins and who loses at the grass-roots level in legislative races,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics and a former state legislator. “It’s all personality. It’s all money.”

Still, the attention legislative candidates are paying to issues beyond the usual territory shows some things have changed, albeit by degree. At a time when Congress is deadlocked on many difficult issues, state lawmakers are more willing to take them on, said Tim Storey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At the same time, political turmoil on a national level has made things increasingly uncertain for legislative candidates, who may find it difficult to differentiate themselves from their Washington counterparts.

“One of the best lines I heard was a legislator who said, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s possible I could lose my seat because of events the weekend before the election in Baghdad,’ ” Mr. Storey recalled.


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