Elections saw GOP surge at state level

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  Nov. 8, 2002 at 8:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (UPI) -- It wasn't until week's end that the depth of Tuesday's surprise GOP sweep became evident.

Going into the election, most polls showed a number of critical races as being to close to call or at least within the margin of error. Turnout was expected to hit an historic low, following the trend of declining participation in American elections.

Without exit polls, it is difficult to say precisely what motivated the American people to vote as they did on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Both parties were criticized in the press for failing to provide the American people with an agenda worth voting for.

For the most part, things did not turn out as most election predictions anticipated.

Curtis Gans of the non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate estimates that turnout last Tuesday was 39.3 percent of the voting-age population, reversing the trend of falling participation.

In the 1998 midterm election, the turnout figure was 37.6 percent, the lowest since 1942, when American was at war.

The center says that turnout was up in 28 states and down in 22, something Gans attributes to "the intensity of competition." They believe participation increased the most in states where the races were most competitive.

Snapshots and post-election analyses say the prospects of war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein motivated many Republicans to go the polls. Partly a display of patriotism and partly a desire to show support for the president, Republicans turned out at near-presidential levels in a number of precincts, especially in the South.

Democrats criticized the state of the economy and attacked corporate corruption with great vigor but were not able to establish in the minds of the voters that the Republicans had caused these problems. More significantly, they did not present clear solutions of their own to these problems.

Early analysis of Tuesday's results show the Republicans achieved a historic result in Congress, picking up House seats and winning control of the Senate for the president's party in a midterm election -- a first since direct election of senators became the law in the early part of the 19th century.

Prior to 2002, it was the norm for the president's party to lose seats in midterm election, both in Congress and in state legislatures across the country.

The GOP's strong performance in the states is also historic or near historic. Before the election, there were Republican governors in 27 states, Democrats in 21 states and independents in Maine and Minnesota. Most predictions had the Democrats winning most of the gubernatorial races, giving them a majority of governorships for the first time since 1992-1994.

In fact, thanks to some surprising victories, the GOP came out of the election with 26 governorships, a net loss of only one. The Democrats have 24. Each party picked up one of the independents, Maine going to the Democrats and Republicans getting Minnesota.

Republicans also made strong gains among state legislators, picking up close to 200 seats across the country.

Republicans picked up the Texas House of Representatives for the first time since 1870, giving the GOP total control of the state government.

In Arizona, the Republicans regained control of the state Senate, which had been tied going in to the election, while retaining control of the state House of Representatives and losing the governorship.

On the strength of Republican Gov. Bill Owens' strong performance is his bid for re-election, Republicans regained control of the Colorado Senate while maintaining control of the state House.

The Missouri state Legislature is now in the hands of the GOP for the first time since Eisenhower was president. The Republicans picked up the state House while keeping control of the state Senate.

The GOP also picked up the state senates in Washington and Wisconsin.

Among state legislative chambers, Democrats only picked up the Illinois state Senate, giving them complete control of the state for the first time in decades.

The Oregon Senate slipped out of GOP hands and is now tied. The North Carolina House of Representatives, which had been tied, is now in GOP hands after a recanvas changed the outcome in one seat. Before the election, it was led by the Democrats.

The Indiana House, controlled by Democrats before the election, comes under Republican leadership pending the results of a recount in one race. A GOP win would tie the chamber, 50 Republicans to 50 Democrats. The GOP's candidate for state secretary of State, the top race on Tuesday's statewide ballot, won, the deciding factor when the legislature ties. After a similar outcome several years ago, the two parties agreed that in the event of another tie, the party that won that year's top state race would have control.

A switch by three Democrats in the Georgia state Senate to the GOP has given them control of the chamber for the first time, this after the stunning upset of Democrat Gov. Roy Barnes.

In spite of being badly beaten in the race for governor, Pennsylvania Republicans expanded their majority 203-member state House from 104 to 109 seats. Republicans also solidified the majority they gained through a party switch in the Kentucky Senate, gaining one additional seat for a new 21-17 majority.

In an unusual development, two state legislative leaders were beaten in their bid for re-election. The state House Speakers in Georgia and Maryland, Tom Murphy and Casper Taylor, Jr., both Democrats, lost.

Before the election, 18 state legislatures had a majority of Republicans, 18 had a majority of Democrats and 14 were split between the two parties. After Tuesday, 22 state legislatures are majority Republican against 16 Democrat and 12 split.

At the most micro level, the results are also startling.

The 49 lower houses of the state legislatures have a combined total of 5,455 seats. After Tuesday, those seats are divided almost in half, 2,684 each for the Democrats and Republicans; 18 are held by independents, one is vacant and 24 are undecided.

There are 1984 seats in the 50 state senates, Nebraska having a unicameral legislature. The split there is 962 for the Democrats, 949 for the Republicans, 51 independents, two vacancies and six undecided.

The data from the states suggests strongly that the country is split evenly -- which actually represents continued progress for the GOP at the local level. Back in the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan was winning back-to-back presidential landslides, the best the Republicans could at the state level was to capture one-third of the legislative chambers. After the 1994 landslide, the GOP had a narrow lead -- which they later narrowly lost -- in the number of state legislative chambers under their control. Even with that, they still lagged badly behind the Democrats in the total number of state legislative seats.

After Tuesday, the GOP appears to have closed the state legislator gap substantially, pulling even with the Democrats in this critical measure of political power and influence.

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