July 21, 2004


America's close partisan division between Republicans and Democrats is not only reflected in public opinion polls. It also is evident through a much more relevant yardstick: partisan control of the nation's state legislatures. Of the 50 states, 49 have bicameral legislatures, meaning both a Senate and House, while one, Nebraska, has a unicameral legislature, with just a Senate.

Republicans control both chambers in 21 states, and they also control Nebraska. Democrats control both chambers in 17 states, and 11 states have split control, including 10 with each party holding a majority in one chamber and one state with a tie in once chamber. Of the nation's 7,382 elected state senators and representatives, 3,724 of those seats are held by Republicans and 3,659 are held by Democrats -- a difference of 65 seats. This is noteworthy, as it marks the first time since 1954 that the Republicans have had a majority.

But those raw numbers are somewhat deceptive. For example, a dinky state like New Hampshire has 400 members of its House (which Republicans control 281-119), while California's House has just 80 members (which Democrats control 48-32).

What is not deceptive is the general correlation between legislative dominance and presidential performance. In 2000 George Bush won 30 states, to Al Gore's 20. Of Bush's 30 states, Republicans control the legislature in18, Democrats in seven (all in the Deep South or border states: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia), and five have split control (North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada and Indiana). Bush will again win all the Deep South states. With the possible exception of Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, West Virginia and North Carolina (due to the state's John Edward's being on the Democratic ticket), the 2000 Bush states will be 2004 Bush states. However, the president cannot be re-elected if he loses more than one of those five states.

Republicans control both chambers in four states won by Gore in 2000: Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Democrat John Kerry is leading in the polls in each of those states, with only Iowa and Wisconsin even close.

Democrats control both chambers in 10 Gore states: Illinois, Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. All but New Mexico are solid for Kerry-Edwards in 2004. Of the six split states won by Gore, where Democrats control one legislative chamber, Oregon, Washington and Minnesota are possible flips to Bush in 2004, while Delaware, New York and Vermont are solid for Kerry.

So the outcome of Bush-Kerry will be determined in five legislatively split states (North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Minnesota), one Democratic-dominated state (New Mexico), and three Republican-dominated states (Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin).

 According to a recent analysis in the Rothenberg Political Report, the sharp Republican legislative gains of 2002 won't be wiped away in 2004. In fact, regardless of the result in Bush-Kerry, they will likely expand. Here's a region-by-region analysis:

South: A half-century ago, virtually every state legislator was a Democrat. Since then, there's been an incremental ideological realignment, with white conservatives affiliating with the Republicans and white liberals and minorities sticking with the Democrats. This realignment has been most pronounced in the so-called Outer South. Republicans are now dominant in the state Senate and House, respectively, in Texas (19-12, 88-62), Florida (26-14, 81-39), Virginia (24-16, 61-37), South Carolina (25-21, 73-51) and Missouri (20-14, 90-73). In each of those states, Republicans hold most suburban and rural seats, while Democrats hold virtually all the urban and minority seats. Three of the five states have a Republican governor, with Missouri likely to elect a Republican in 2004; the other Democrat is in Virginia.

The Republicans have made huge gains in the Deep South in the past several decades, but their impediment has been the resistance of rural voters to switch. That barrier fell in 2002 in Georgia, when rural voters helped elect a Republican (Sonny Perdue, a former Democratic state senator from rural Perry) as governor and a Republican state Senate (30-26). Now, with a new redistricting, the Democrats' 106-73 House majority will shrink substantially; Republicans need a net gain of 17 seats to win a majority, and that is unlikely, but they will come close.

Both Alabama and Mississippi have Republican governors, but Democrats still dominate the legislature, primarily because some rural voters still resist switching to the Republicans. The Senate and House in Alabama (25-10, 63-42) and Mississippi (29-22, 74-45), as well as in Louisiana (26-13, 68-36), likely will move into the Republican column within 10 years. In Louisiana, which had a Republican governor from 1995 to 2003, many rural voters still opt for the Democrats in legislative races. Arkansas, Bill Clinton's state, has had a Republican governor since 1996, but the party is still vastly outnumbered in the Senate and House (27-8, 70-30), and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

The border states of Oklahoma (28-20, 53-48), Tennessee (18-15, 54-45) and West Virginia (24-10, 68-32) have Democratic governors, but Republicans have been making steady legislative gains in the former two states, and they could win the Oklahoma House in 2004. In Kentucky, which elected a Republican governor in 2003, the Senate and House are split (22-16 Republican, 65-35 Democrat), but here Republicans are strong in rural areas. North Carolina has a Democratic governor, and the Democrats control the Senate 28-22, but the Republicans have a 61-59 House majority. Both North Carolina chambers are in play in 2004.

Overall, the Republicans will continue to make Southern legislative gains.

East: Contrary to expectations, this region is not a Republican wasteland. Both chambers in New Hampshire (18-6, 281-119) and Pennsylvania (29-21, 109-94) are Republican, and they will stay that way. Six states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Maine -- have huge Democratic legislative majorities in both chambers, but the first four have Republican governors. It seems that Easterners balance their tendency to vote Democratic at the legislative level by electing a Republican at the gubernatorial level. New York and Vermont have Republicans governors, and Republicans control the New York Senate (37-25) and Vermont House (74-69), while Delaware has a Democratic governor and a Republican House (29-12).

Interestingly, in New York, which has a Democratic House (103-47), each chamber, at the time of redistricting, draws its own district lines. So, unlike Illinois, where each Senate district elects two House members, the New York lines are autonomous of each other. Each party draws itself a hefty majority.

Midwest: Of the 11 states in this region, Democrats hold both chambers only in Illinois (32-27, 66-52); that won't change in Illinois in 2004. Likewise, Republican dominance in Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio won't change. Minnesota will stay split. Only in Indiana's House, which Democrats control 51-49 (the Senate is 32-18 Republican), is a flip possible.

West: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's problems in balancing the state budget are not helped by the Democrats' legislative dominance (25-15, 48-32). Not since Ronald Reagan was governor, during 1969-70, have the Republicans controlled either chamber. That won't change in 2004. Of the other 12 Western states, Republicans control both chambers in Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Utah, and Democrats both in New Mexico and Hawaii. Control is split in Oregon, Nevada and Washington.

Those chambers in play in 2004 include the Colorado Senate (18-17 Republican), the Nevada House (23-19 Democratic), the Alaska Senate (11-8 Republican), the Oregon Senate (15-15 tie), and both the Washington House (52-46 Democratic) and Senate (25-24 Republican).

The bottom line: Regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, the Republicans will fare better nationally than the Democrats at the state legislative level in 2004.