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  •   Democrats Gain Seats in State Legislatures

    By William Claiborne
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, November 5, 1998; Page A46

    Democrats reversed a decades-long erosion of their state legislative majorities on Tuesday, making unexpected midterm gains that will strengthen their position when statehouses reapportion congressional districts after the 2000 census.

    Mirroring the successes of their party in congressional races this year, Democrats wrested control from the Republicans in five legislative chambers -- three state senates and two assemblies -- and assumed control of one tied chamber, while the GOP took two chambers from the Democrats.

    The net gain of four chambers for the Democrats defied a historical pattern going back to at least 1942 in which the party of the president has lost on average 382 state legislative seats in midterm elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Overall, the Democrats gained about 45 seats this election.

    Before Tuesday's voting, the GOP had stood within only 180 seats -- out of 7,424 state legislators in the nation -- of gaining a majority among state lawmakers for the first time since 1952. In 1976, Democrats held 68 percent of all state legislative seats, but that position has steadily eroded to the point where going into this election the party held only 52 percent of partisan legislative seats.

    "This election clearly did not follow historical patterns," said NCSL executive director William Pound. "It's good news for the Democrats, because expectations were negative for them. But both parties can walk away from this election claiming important victories."

    Indeed, Republican National Committee spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said the GOP's gain of seats in numerous houses, coupled with the party's retention of a majority of governors, "is going to put us in a position of strength for 2000 and the political battlefield for the first decade of the next century."

    NCSL's Pound called the voting a "status quo election" with fewer state legislative chambers changing hands than at any time since 1988. He attributed that to general voter satisfaction with the economy, the absence of issues that traditionally drive change and the fact that a record number of states are recording budget surpluses.

    Tuesday's election put the Democrats in control of 21 legislatures and the Republicans in control of 17, with 11 divided. (Nebraska's unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.) Going into the election, the Democrats led the GOP, 20 to 19, with 10 legislatures divided.

    Democrats now control both chambers in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

    Republicans control both chambers in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

    Chambers split between the two parties are in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

    Democrats on Tuesday won back the Wisconsin Senate after losing it in a special election in April and also took back the strongly contested North Carolina House. They claimed the New Hampshire Senate for the first time since 1912, won control of the House in Washington state and moved from a tied chamber to a majority in the Indiana House.

    In California, not only did Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis win the gubernatorial race, but Democrats retained control of both the Senate and Assembly, thereby threatening to shut Republicans out of reapportionment if they can hold their majorities in 2000.

    Kevin Mack, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said Democrats had not only protected their majorities in the South, but had made inroads in the Republican West by gaining 54 seats. "The reality is, we have a strong state legislative operation, while the Republicans have become a congressional party out of touch with the grass roots," Mack said.

    For the Republicans, the good news was that with the election of Jeb Bush as governor, Florida became the first southern state since Reconstruction to give the GOP control of both the legislature and the governor's office.

    Republicans also took control of the lower houses in Michigan and Minnesota -- two large states where redistricting will be crucial after 2000. The GOP also picked up seats in a number of legislatures where reapportionment fights will be big, including Texas's, and beat back a strong Democratic bid to win a majority in the Oregon House.

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