Stateline Story

Scores of Statehouse Candidates Lack Challengers

  • October 29, 2004
  • By Erin Madigan

Nearly 80 percent of the nation's 7,382 state legislative seats are up for grabs Nov. 2, but candidates in more than a third of those races won't be pacing the room or wringing their hands as votes are tallied election night.

That's because they're running unopposed.

The most staggering case is in South Carolina, where more than three-quarters of the 124 seats in the state House of Representatives are uncontested by a major party candidate. Among state Senate chambers, New Mexico stands out with 60 percent of its seats unchallenged. Well over half of the candidates vying for terms in the Arkansas, Georgia and Florida houses lack rivals, too.

"A lot of voters are going to go to the polling place and not have any choice," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Iowa who has tracked legislative races across the country.

The number of uncontested races in 2004 is a high-water mark, but follows a trend line over the past 30 years in which the number of hard-fought legislative races has slowly eroded. Political observers said this is due to a combination of factors including term limits, re-districting and the difficulty of recruiting candidates to run for public office in districts with strong incumbents or historic party ties.

"It's just harder to get people to run for the state legislature than it was a decade ago. The time commitment is not always matched by the salary, and the fact is, running for office now is not a pleasant experience," Squire said. "You take a lot of abuse, and so it's just harder to get people to put the time in to run a campaign that they may end up losing."

Tim Storey, an elections expert at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, offered similar sentiments. He said in the 1960s and 70s the number of unopposed legislative seats held steady at about 20 percent, but today hovers around 37 percent.

"The (political) parties are pretty smart about using their resources. ... In some ways it's a distraction and a drain on resources to run where you really don't have a chance," Storey said.

Despite the budding crowd of unopposed candidates who are a shoo-in for a seat, there is a lot at stake in this year's legislative contests. There are 5,807 seats up for election in 44 state legislatures this year. Only six states Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia will not hold legislative elections on Tuesday.

"This is a massive (election) year and a big opportunity for change," said Keon Chi, who tracks state-level elections for the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky.

The divide between Republican and Democratic legislators is so narrow in 23 states that a loss or gain of just a handful of seats could swing control to the opposite party in 28 legislative chambers. Power could change hands by a shift of just three seats in 18 state senates and a change of five seats in 10 lower chambers. The party with the upper hand will have the ability to lay the groundwork during the next legislative session.

Since the early 1980s, Republicans have made steady gains in statehouses across the country and in 2002 surpassed Democrats for the first time in 50 years in total number of legislators. Democrats hope to turn that trend around, but the GOP is seeking to solidify its control.

The GOP now holds a 68-seat advantage nationally and has majority control of both Senate and House chambers in 21 states, while Democrats control both chambers in 17 states. Power is split in 11 states. Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan Legislature.

"At the end of the day, it'll be, do the Democrats stop the hemorrhaging that they've been experiencing for the last three decades ... or does the trend line continue and do Republicans continue to eat away at Democratic power?" NCSL's Storey said.

NCSL rates the top 10 battleground states for legislative races as Georgia, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Vermont, where the focus is on control of the House; Colorado, Maine and Oregon, with tight Senate margins; and Washington state, where both chambers are considered a toss-up.

A separate political analysis identifies a slightly different set of legislative chambers that could swing to either party. Louis Jacobson, deputy editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, handicapped the statehouse elections for the Rothenberg Political Report. He identified seven toss-up chambers: the Indiana House, Maine Senate, North Carolina House, Oklahoma House, Vermont House and Washington House and Senate.

Term limits also could play a role in the legislative power grab in a number of states. Nationwide, 261 legislators are being forced into retirement in 16 states in 2004. In Oklahoma, where Democrats currently wield a slight advantage in both chambers, term limits will take effect for the first time this year and are barring 28 current state representatives and 14 senators from running again.

While issues paramount in the presidential election include the war in Iraq and homeland security, it will be bread-and-butter issues such as taxes, jobs and education that drive voters to cast ballots for local representatives, political observers said. However, aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts by national parties could factor into statehouse races in places such as Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Oregon and Wisconsin that are both presidential battlegrounds and important legislative contests.

"The parties are getting their voters and new voters out there, and (voters) might be fired up for Bush or for Kerry, but then revert to their party down the ticket," Storey said. "So there's a real premium on which states are getting the focus and the money by the national parties for get-out-the-vote."