RESULTS OF elections for state legislature are worth looking at. One reason is that the issues the 7,300-odd state legislators decide are of increasing importance, from the level of welfare benefits to the conditions for merit pay for teachers to the penalties for drunk driving. And legislatures are the farm teams for national politics.
As the figures trickle in, it's becoming clear that the Republicans made small but possibly significant gains. In the elections for U.S. Senate and House, Republicans ended up with fewer seats than they did in 1980, although Ronald Reagan got 51 percent of the vote in 1980 and 59 percent this year. But in state legislative contests, Republicans will hold just over 3,000 legislative seats in January, about 100 more than four years ago. That's the highest Republican figure in more than 10 years, though well below the Republican numbers in the years before the 1964 one-person/one-vote decision.
Moreover, Republicans have made made significant gains in key regions. Not since the years following the civil rights revolution have Republicans won as many legislative seats in the South; they have not won control of any legislature there, but they made significant gains in Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia -- the largest southern states. Republicans also made significant gains in the industrial upper Midwest -- Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota. Such states have provided much of the leadership for the post-Vietnam Democratic Party. Now they may be breeding leaders for the Republicans.
Looking ahead, as politicians always do, to the redistricting that will follow the 1990 Census, Republicans have made significant gains as well. They now control both houses in 11 states, reducing Democratic control of both houses to 28 (half of them southern). More important for congressional districting, they're eroding the Democrats' control in the eight biggest non-southern states, which elect 43 percent of all congressmen.
It's a long time until 1991, and there will be a lot of turns in the results before then. But the 1984 results suggest that one other Democratic advantage is eroding as well. Any politician will tell you that in recent years Democrats have had far more than an equal share of the natural politicians -- the aggressive, articulate, politically adept self-starters who are critical to success in a ticket-splitting nation. The 1984 legislative results suggest -- maybe just hint -- that the Republicans are getting or finding a larger share of such natural politicians; and if that's so, this election will remain important long after the roller coaster ad and the bear are forgotten.