The significance of the nation's razor-thin political division is often talked about by the political chattering classes, a discussion that usually takes the form of chin-stroking analyses of the red and blue states. Less talked about is another but significant political barometer, the number of each party's legislators: 3,689 for the Republicans and 3,626 for the Democrats.
That's how closely divided the nation's 7,382 legislators are; 50.3% are GOP, while 49.4 are Democrats, a difference of less than one percentage point. (For the literal-minded, there are 20 independent or third-party folks and then there's Nebraska, which is officially non-partisan.)
When the nation's voters go to the polls Nov. 2, many probably will know little about the men and women running for those legislative seats. Some 78% of them are at stake, but there's not much news coverage of races on the bottom of the ballot. The glamour job in every newsroom is covering politics on a bigger scale the national or statewide races. But political insiders know that when the dust settles, the partisan divide in state lawmaking bodies and how it has changed or not -- will have enormous political significance.
As Bill Pound of the National Conference of State Legislatures likes to point out, most of what's new in public policy starts with the states. "The bottom line is that most domestic policy initiatives come out of state legislatures," he says.
Many of the top actors on the national stage first tasted political ambition as members of their state legislature. As many as half the candidates for statewide office rose from the ranks of legislators.
Back in the 1960s, Democrats held an overwhelming edge in legislative seats, but that was their high-water mark. Republican numbers began to rise slowly at first and then more rapidly, and since 1996, the two parties have been in a kind of rough equilibrium with Republicans now able to claim a small plurality.
In terms of the numbers of chambers each party controls is a more significant statistic: Republicans have a substantial edge. Of the states' 98 lawmaking chambers, the GOP controls 53, the Democrats are the majority in 44, and Oregon's Senate is dead even.
Seen from a national perspective, the grandest, most sweeping political movement of the last decades of the twentieth century was the rise of the GOP, notably in the South. Their success was first evident in the results of legislative elections. But it was in 1994 they really broke through. While all the attention was focused on the Gingrich revolution, which changed partisan control of Congress and is still in place today, Republicans were gaining control of 18 state chambers previously held by Democrats.
Stung by their widespread defeats, the party set up the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and in the 96 election cycle regained a net of six chambers. But in each of the last three cycles, Republicans have made small net gains. So far, however, in the current cycle that includes off-year elections, Democrats have gained one chamber, the New Jersey Senate, which was evenly divided.
This year as they try for more, Michael Davies, executive director of the DLCC, has targeted roughly 400 competitive races and will spend $7 million to $10 million.
"We're building the next generation of candidates," he says. "We're a farm team in terms of developing national candidates, but we're in the major leagues in terms of backing policy-makers who actually put plans and initiatives into action."
His Republican counterpart, Alex Johnson, who heads the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, says he will direct the spending of about $5 million with most of that money going to state legislative leaders who will select districts with the potential for the greatest bang for the buck. He, too, looks upon legislatures as the hothouse for national political trends.
"In the states, everything happens much faster [than at the national level]. The shift of just a few seats can change party control and therefore the legislative agenda," he says. "It's much more exciting at the state level. It feels like real politics. You can really make a difference on issues like tort reform or tax reform with the switch of just a few seats."
The question in this election cycle is: Can the GOP regain the momentum that it enjoyed in the 90s and that has seemed to slip slightly in recent elections?
That is one reason that there is a national spotlight on competitive local races in the most closely divided states and that money and muscle has come from Washington, D.C. In closely divided North Carolina, for example, one competitive race has a budget in the $300,000 range.
Davies says there is no way to generalize about the cost of legislative races because they vary so widely among the states, but the biggest budgets are reserved for competitive races in expensive media markets. But there are few seats that are genuinely competitive, thanks to computer-powered tools that enable lawmakers to draw districts that have the effect of fine-tuning voters by party, thus creating one-party districts, according to Ferrel Guillory, Director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina. He says some candidates in those one-party districts get re-elected without spending anything while competitive races can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There are 28 chambers in 23 states where a switch of only a few seats could shift control from one party to the other. For example, in the Maine and Colorado Senates and the Indiana House, the majority party holds just a one-seat advantage. Oklahoma, where term limits are in effect for the first time, could shift party control if just three seats change hands. The Oregon Senate is deadlocked 15-15. In North Carolina, the lower house is divided 61-59 after one member who had switched from Republican to Democrat and created a 60-60 deadlock switched back to his GOP roots, then lost a primary election. Left in place for now, is a co-speakership arrangement in which the presiding officer changes every month.
Tim Storey, NCSL's political trends tracker, says turnout will be crucial in many close districts. And he is watching the money race. "Spending is more sophisticated as donors target competitive seats," he says. "The GOP has more seats than it has had in 50 years. The question is: Have they maxed out?"
Davies predicts that 15-20 races in Missouri will be decided by as few as 200 votes; one was decided in 2002 by 150 votes.
"The smaller the race, the more important the individual vote is," he says.
Davies and Johnson agree that the battle for president at the top of the ticket as well as U.S. Senate and 11 governors' contests will help to drive turnout, with the debate over gay marriage another factor in getting voters to the polls.
"Gay rights will turn out a lot of our voters," Johnson says.
Ed Fouhy retired this year as founding editor of Stateline.org and now lives in Chatham, Mass. He is a consultant to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline.org. In a career spanning more than 30 years, most of it in Washington, D.C., he helped direct news coverage for all three major television networks at various times.