- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Early returns showed battles under way for control of statehouses in Indiana and Maine, as Democrats hoped to ride dissatisfaction with national Republican leadership to a decisive gain in state legislatures yesterday.

In Indiana, where Republicans control the House by a four-seat margin, Democrats got some early encouragement. But it was far too soon to know whether gains by those candidates would be enough for a takeover.

In Maine, candidates settled in to wait, with control of the House considered too close to call. Democrats now command a single-seat advantage in a chamber where 1 in 5 incumbents were not running for re-election.

The tight races echoed uncertainty around the nation as voters decided the balance of power in legislatures that are now almost evenly split. Of the nearly 7,400 seats in statehouses nationwide, Democrats hold an advantage of just 21 seats. Republicans control both chambers in 20 states, with Democrats controlling both houses in 19 others.

The party that wins the helm in legislatures, particularly in states where it has control of both chambers, can not only shape the policy agenda, but also get a key advantage in redrawing congressional districts. That has taken on added importance since the Supreme Court ruled in June that states are free to redraw districts at any time, without waiting until after each decade’s national census.

History and recent polls say the Democrats are likely to pick up seats. In midterm elections, the party that does not control the White House has averaged a net gain of more than 300 seats in statehouses nationwide, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

The trend does not always hold, however. In the 2002 midterm elections, the Republicans gained 177 seats. But that came as President Bush’s popularity soared after the 2001 terrorist attacks. This time, voter disapproval of the Bush administration could strongly boost Democratic candidates.

“You’ve got nine or 10 states where the margin of control is very close at this point,” said Gary Moncrief, a professor of political science at Boise State University. “If things are going to break the way Democrats hope they will, this could be the best news they’ve had in a while.”

The parties are separated by just a few seats in many legislatures, leading to hard-fought elections.

In the Colorado Senate, Democrats hold a single-seat advantage. In the Minnesota House, Republicans are up by just one seat. In the Montana House and the Iowa Senate, the parties are tied. Other states where a narrow divide in at least one chamber could set the stage for change in control included Indiana, Maine, North Carolina and Oregon.

The margin of control is not that close in Republican-led chambers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, but voter discontent in those states could result in more seats changing hands, observers say.

“If one of those states switches” to Democratic control, “it’ll be very telling,” said Tim Storey, an analyst with the NCSL.

The national parties have become more involved in legislative campaigns, bringing considerable money to these races. The Republican State Leadership Committee says it will raise and spend $4 million to $6 million on state legislative races, double the amount spent in 2004.

Its rival, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, says it will spend $9 million to $10 million for the two-year cycle, about two-thirds of that this year. That is up from the $6 million to $7 million it gathered and spent in the past two election cycles.

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