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Legislatures

Parties Reach Near-Parity in Statehouses

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2004; Page A43

MINNEAPOLIS, Nov. 3 -- In a nation split down the middle, Republicans and Democrats traded victories in statehouse campaigns, with the GOP picking up three legislative chambers in the South and the Democrats gaining ground in more than half a dozen states where they had fallen behind.

For the first time since Reconstruction, Republican majorities were elected to the Tennessee Senate and the Georgia House, where the GOP overcame a 27-seat gap in a single day. The party also took the Oklahoma House, which Democrats had ruled since the 1920s, and the Indiana House, which has bounced back and forth.

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But Democrats, performing better at the local level than statewide or nationally, took both chambers in Colorado, as well as the Vermont House and the Senates in Oregon and Washington. In hard-fought Iowa they earned a Senate tie with Republicans, and in Minnesota they used an aggressive voter-turnout operation to make dramatic gains.

Minnesota's 77 percent turnout, the highest since 1960, helped the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party narrow a 28-seat Republican majority in the House to just two seats. A recount is scheduled in a race where Republican Judy Soderstrom finished 94 votes ahead of DFL opponent Tim Faust among 20,000 votes cast.

Figures compiled across the country showed the nationwide totals drawing ever closer.

"The two parties have reached almost complete parity at the legislative level," said Tim Storey, elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The daylight between the two parties has almost disappeared."

Storey said that, going into the election, Republicans held about 65 more statehouse seats than Democrats, less than 1 percent of the national total of 7,382 legislative seats.

With several recounts underway and returns still expected from New Hampshire, the country's largest legislature, Storey predicted that the Republican edge is likely to be barely two dozen seats.

"So much attention gets paid to the White House and the U.S. Congress and it's hard to keep track of these legislative races," said Storey, who is based in Denver. "But the fact is these legislators are going to be making policies and passing laws on the things that matter to people: schools and roads and prisons and health care."

The strongest trend remained the ebbing authority of Democrats in the South, symbolized by the huge gains made by Republicans in Georgia with the help of redistricting. After Tuesday's election, the state is home to two Republican U.S. senators, a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled statehouse.

Two-thirds of legislative chambers in the South are in Republican hands.

Tennessee's Senate briefly had a Republican majority in the 1990s, but only because two Democrats switched parties. This time, a Republican majority was elected on a day when President Bush swamped Sen. John F. Kerry by 14 percentage points statewide.

Oklahoma's political leanings have become ever more conservative, but not in 83 years had the Republicans controlled the House. This week's gains in Oklahoma were partly the product of term limits.

Yet the gains made by Democrats elsewhere suggest residual strength and a continuing battle in important parts of the country.

Before the election, with nearly 5,800 seats up for grabs, Republicans controlled 21 states and Democrats, 17, while 11 were split between the parties. Nebraska's legislature is nonpartisan.

Democrats, with Wednesday's unofficial results, appear likely to control 19 states and Republicans 20, with 10 states divided.

Democrats took both Colorado chambers from Republicans. Montana went from Republican to divided when Democrats took the Senate. North Carolina went from divided to Democratic, despite backing Bush and electing Republican Richard Burr to the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. John Edwards.


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