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Taking it to the states

Democrats hold just a 21-seat advantage nationwide in state legislatures-a less glamorous but fertile ground for parties, voters, and local lawmakers seeking to send a message on issues where Congress is gridlocked

For Tim Storey, all politics is local. While Karl Rove and other political strategists plot ways to hang onto a GOP majority in Congress, Storey has state legislatures on his mind.

And this year the GOP has a tough historical trend to overcome: The party that controls the White House has lost legislative seats in nearly every mid-term election since 1940. The only exception was the first election after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in 2002, when Republicans gained 177 statehouse seats.

Though state elections may be less glamorous than national contests, the stakes are high in 2006: State legislatures are nearly evenly divided between political parties. Out of 7,382 state legislative seats in the country, Democrats hold a slim 21-seat advantage.

Storey is convinced that local bodies are more important than ever. "States are really taking a lead at a time when Washington is fairly gridlocked on a lot of issues," says Storey, an elections analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Take immigration, for example. Despite all the heated debate and sense of national urgency over the issue, Congress has "basically done nothing about it," said Storey. But what Congress has been unable to do, states have taken up with a flurry of action: Since the beginning of this year, 27 states have passed 57 bills dealing with immigration issues like employment restrictions, public benefits, trafficking, education, voting rights, and identification. "This is where real policy innovation is going on," Storey said. "It's stuff that matters to people."

State elections have gained national significance this year for another reason: redistricting. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures don't have to wait for 2010 census results to begin redrawing congressional districts.

The ruling means that a shift of power in state legislatures could produce a shift in congressional seats. That dynamic raises the stakes for this year's state elections. "Grassroots takes on a whole new meaning when indeed you set the control of Congress," Democratic Colorado Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald told the Associated Press.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) is making redistricting a focal point in its efforts to put more Democrats in state seats. The committee's website features a prominent image of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who helped with redistricting efforts in Texas. The slogan below the picture reads: "The DLCC is the only check on Tom DeLay-style power grabs."

Going into mid-term elections, Republicans will play defense to retain as many statehouse seats as possible, said Alex Johnson, spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Conference (RSLC). Johnson said the RSLC, which supports state-level Republican races through fundraising and consulting, is encouraging candidates to "talk to voters about issues that are important to them on a local level." Johnson acknowledges that there is "national angst" toward the Republican Party, and he hopes candidates will stay away from issues that they have no control over, like the war in Iraq.

That may be a tough feat, according to Storey: "When people want a change they target the most visible politician around, and that's the president." With the president's approval rating hovering at 40 percent or below, voters may take out their disapproval on incumbents, even those with little connection to the president.

Still, Storey says Republican strategists have had plenty of warning about the challenges this election season, and that may work to their advantage: "I wouldn't underestimate their ability to see the warning signs and turn things around."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.