Stateline Story

The Red, White and Blue States of America

  • October 22, 2004
  • By William T. Pound

The presidential election of 2000 will not just be remembered as the closest in our nation's history. Nor will it only be remembered for introducing such terms as the hanging and dimpled chads to our lexicon. I suspect the 2000 presidential election also will long be remembered for popularizing the concept of red states and blue states.

Red states refer to those that George W. Bush won in 2000 while blue states refer to those that voted for Al Gore. Most news stories and other political conversations during this election season have been couched in the red state/blue state context. But what about those states where there is no clear front-runner?

These battleground states, which have been inundated with visits from presidential candidates, are the ones that will decide the next resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They are also many of the same states in which there will be a white-hot battle for control of the legislative branch of state government. So let's call them white states.

Nearly 80 percent of all state legislators will stand for election in a little over a week. And the political landscape of the state legislative elections is a sea of white foam. The nation's statehouses are more closely divided now than they have been in recent memory. With a mere 68-seat advantage out of a total of 7,382, Republican state legislators outnumber Democrats for the first time in 50 years.

From an institutional perspective, 21 states fall into the red column (where Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature) while 17 states have blue state legislatures. In 11 states, the control of the legislative agenda is divided between the parties -- the white column.

All but six states -- Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia -- will hold statehouse elections. What is so significant about this election is that a shift of just three seats from one party to another in 25 chambers could affect which party controls the political agenda for the next legislative session.

Republicans clearly have been gaining on their opponents in the past several state legislative elections. However, it remains to be seen how such external factors as the contentious presidential election, term limits and ballot initiatives will affect the state legislative races.

Key white states where voter turnout could be the deciding factor to which party controls the statehouse are Colorado, Oregon, Maine and Washington, among others.

In Colorado, Democrats need just one seat to take control of the Senate. Oregon's Senate is split evenly between the two parties. A strong showing by one of the presidential candidates could carry their party to power in Salem. Maine's independent voting streak could tip the power in the Senate to the Republicans. Washington has been the most competitive state Legislature of the past decade. Washington is the purest form of the definition of a purple state as its Legislature has changed control numerous times after the past several elections.

Term limits will play a major role in elections in several states. A total of 261 legislators are termed out this year, including 26 legislative leaders and the chairs of 114 standing committees. The biggest impact will be in the Oklahoma Legislature, where term limits are taking effect for the first time. Twenty-eight percent of all Oklahoma legislators are unable to return to Oklahoma City.

So while the pundits are talking about who won in the red states and who lost in the blue states on election night, keep in mind that the American electorate is just not that simple. Add in the congressional elections, state legislative elections and the gubernatorial elections and you can only come to one conclusion -- white will be the winner in a landslide on Nov. 2, 2004.

William T. Pound is the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization based in Denver that provides research and policy assistance for state legislators and their staffs.