The Battle for Control of State Legislatures

Keep an Eye on the Battle for State Legislatures
MoJo Wire
by Rob Richie and Steven Hill
November 2, 2000

While most media attention is riveted on the roller coaster ride of the presidential race, a quiet, but critically important battle is occurring for control of 50 state legislatures. In nearly a third of the states, the major parties are within a bare half-dozen seats of one another in one chamber. It may be the most competitive national struggle for statehouse power in decades.

The results have national implications. A little recognized fact of our politics is that if a party completes the trifecta of controlling both houses of the state legislature as well as the Governor's seat at the end of each decade, it wins the God-like powers to redraw its state's legislative district lines, both for the state legislature and for the U.S. House. And that, in turn, can determine which party controls the U.S. House.

In California, for example, Democrats regained control of the Governor's mansion in 1998 to match their control of the state house and senate, thereby gaining monopoly control over California's redistricting for the first time in 20 years. Democrats gave abrupt notice that certain Republican Congresspeople could start looking for new work. "If James Rogan is still in office after 2002, he will be representing a district in the Pacific Ocean," crowed one Democratic consultant.

By using techniques like "packing," whereby the lines are drawn so that large numbers of your political opponents' voters are packed into a few districts, those controlling the process can dramatically heighten their chances at winning the remaining districts.

Analysts in both parties say that control over the 2001 redistricting process will give a party such an advantage that the state elections in 1998 and 2000 -- not the presidential race, and not the congressional elections -- will determine who holds a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives right through 2010. It is literally true that a handful of voters in 2000 are determining representation for voters well into the next decade.

"In so many ways, redistricting will determine the future control of Congress," says Kevin Mack, who heads the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Some observers say the 1994 elections -- when Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in over 40 years -- was due in part to the last redistricting in 1991. And yet these legislative races that will decide who controls redistricting in each state are occurring beneath the radar.

The numbers reflect the gravity of what's at stake. Democrats control both houses in 19 state legislatures, Republicans in 17, and 13 are split (Nebraska's unicameral legislature is nonpartisan but leans conservative). In some 15 states, the majorities in at least one house are narrow enough that both parties have a chance at taking a majority on Election Day. Among them are big states such as Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

Given the narrow margin of the GOP's House majority now -- 222 to 211 with two independents -- even a small shift could have big implications for national politics. Yet without the personality contest of the presidential contest to attract media attention, it's treated like political junkie trivia rather than prime time news.

Part of the problem is that most voters aren't in on the game, as the battle boils down to only a handful of close races in each state. That's because most legislative districts were drawn in the last redistricting to be non-competitive.

So this trench warfare is being fought in these small number of close races like a new kind of civil war. Huge gobs of soft money have been raised and spent in nasty sound bite campaigns, as the Democrats and Republicans try to sway undecided voters in these swing races.

The close breakdown at the state level -- like the tight battles for Congress and the president -- reflects the nation's political balance. Essentially we have two minority parties right now. Neither party has a majority of the national electorate on their side. So the tight rope balance and the stakes drive up the cost, and the acrimony, of these elections.

Public attention may be riveted on the presidential face-off, but the low intensity conflict for control of state capitals and redistricting may have longer-term partisan implications. And the real losers in all this usually is the ordinary voter, who typically ends up bunkered down in a safe, one-party district where voting amounts to ratifying the candidate chosen to dominates their district.

So stay tuned to those legislative races and then, keep an eye on those legislators next year. That's when redistricting -- and the often bitter battle for future power -- starts in all 50 states.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. They are coauthors of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press). For more information, see or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.