Many State Legislatures Face Potential Power Shift

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The control of numerous state legislatures is at stake Nov. 7. Two under close watch are Montana and Iowa, both of which have chambers that are deadlocked.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In addition to Congress, control of many state legislatures is in the balance in next week's election. Eighty-three percent of state legislative seats are on the ballot in 46 states and the outcome of those elections could have a profound impact on politics at the state level and beyond.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Tim Storey will be among those paying close attention to the results. He's an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TIM STOREY (National Conference of State Legislatures): I'm happy to be here, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: Tim, let's start by talking about the way things are shaped up now. Nationwide, state Houses are pretty evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. STOREY: That's exactly correct. It is remarkably even. It's almost an era of perfect parity between the two parties. The Democrats have a 17 seat advantage in the total number of legislative seats, so it's almost exactly even at the micro level. And even at the macro level, the total number of states controlled, there are 20 legislatures controlled by the GOP, 19 controlled by the Democrats and 10 that are divided with, you know, one chamber being in the hands of one party and the other chamber being in the hands of the other party.

BLOCK: And then there's Nebraska, which is a bit of an anomaly.

Mr. STOREY: They're nonpartisan and unicameral, so they're unique in a couple of ways.

BLOCK: Also, it seems that there are very narrow majorities in a number of states, so it wouldn't take much to make a shift.

Mr. STOREY: That's exactly right. There are 29 states where a switch of only five seats or fewer would change the party control of that legislative chamber.

BLOCK: Have you found in the past that national trends, voter dissatisfaction, say, carry over into state races?

MR. STOREY: Over the past 60 years, where we have really good data about legislative elections, the party in the White House has lost seats in legislatures in every mid-term election, so oftentimes it is tough for the party who controls the White House - with one exception, and that was the 2002 election, the post-9/11 election, when Republicans gained seats in legislatures, breaking a trend that had held for 60 years.

Usually these are very local races and they're often focused on local issues. That may be a little different this year. I've had a number of legislative candidates say that they're knocking on doors, and people are asking them about the War in Iraq, something that, of course, legislatures don't have any direct control over or authority over.

In fact, one Midwestern legislator said to me that he couldn't believe that he was saying this, but he was concerned that the events on the streets of Baghdad the Saturday before the election could actually decide whether or not he gets reelected. I think that's unusual, but of course these are unusual times.

BLOCK: Isn't it true, at least in the past, that an overwhelming number of incumbents win reelection?

MR. STOREY: Just like in congressional elections, incumbents have the advantage going into their own elections, but I think this is a year where there's a lot of uncertainty and uneasiness among incumbents and maybe some upheaval in the offing.

BLOCK: Well, one big issue that people look to when legislatures change hands is possible redistricting, and there's a lot of interest now, especially given the Supreme Court decision this past term on Texas's redistricting. What might happen now?

MR. STOREY: Right. It's fascinating that we're talking about redistricting, even though the census is still a few years away. It's sort of like marketing of Christmas. It seems to get earlier every year. Talk about redistricting seems to get earlier every decade. So I think we're - already, the people, the party strategists who play three dimensional chess, they know that they have to establish strong majorities in legislatures now so they're not playing catch up in the election right before redistricting.

And you're right. The Supreme Court has actually now said that there's no federal prohibition, no constitutional limit on being able to redraw lines between the decades, just as of course, Texas did a very high profile episode of that a couple of years ago, and that went all the way to the Supreme Court. So redistricting is an issue that's sort of not something that voters are going to decide who they vote for on, but party leaders are keenly aware of the fact that redistricting looms out on the horizon.

BLOCK: And of course redistricting affects politics on a national level, too.

Mr. STOREY: Well that's right. State legislatures will draw the lines for U.S. House districts in almost every state. And so if you want to control Congress perhaps into the next decade, you want to have your hands on the redistricting pen when it comes time to draw the lines after the next census, because legislatures have the first authority for drawing U.S. House districts.

BLOCK: Tim Storey, thanks very much.

Mr. STOREY: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Tim Storey is an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

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