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Washington Journal: Governors Determine State Politics

By Annie Hillar

Washington, 30 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- American voters have the opportunity next week to change the face of state politics across the country.

Not only will voters decide who will be governor in over 70 percent of U.S. states on Tuesday, but with 83 percent of the nation's state legislative seats opening up they will also determine the partisan control of state legislatures.

This year, 36 of the 50 governors' seats are open -- 24 held by Republicans, 11 by Democrats and one held by an Independent. Currently, there are 32 Republican governors, 17 Democratic ones, and one Independent in the northeastern state of Maine. State governors hold office for four-year terms.

There is more than usual interest in the races this year because most of the governors to be elected will be in office during the crucial congressional and state legislative redistricting that will occur after the census in the year 2000.

The number of congressional districts in a state is determined by its population, which is counted every ten years. Each state is guaranteed at least one seat in the House. Under the last reapportionment in 1990, a House district represents about 600,000 people. Districts that are drawn as a result of the 2000 census will remain in place for another decade.

Redrawing the maps for congressional and state legislative districts is done by the states.

Sean Walsh, deputy chief of staff for California's Republican governor Peter Wilson, says this is why that state's governor's race is being watched closely this year. California is the largest U.S. state and the winner of this year's election will play a major role in redrawing the state's Congressional boundaries. California currently has 52 seats and the next census will determine the number and makeup of the districts.

In other gubernatorial races, two of the nation's three women governors are up for re-election. Women in eight other states are also vying for the job of governor.

In the north central state of Minnesota, a former professional wrestler is running as a third party candidate, although he is trailing behind both the Democratic and Republican candidates.

Also on the campaign trail are candidates for seats in state legislatures. State governments have various functions, including primary responsibility for education, welfare, highways and maintaining public order.

State legislatures are generally made up of a Senate (upper House) and a lower chamber, called a House or Assembly. The one exception is the state of Nebraska: it has a unicameral legislature, whose members uniquely are elected and serve on a non-partisan basis. State legislators serve either two or four-year terms, depending on each state's laws.

This year, 46 states have all their House seats up for election, and 17 states have all their Senate seats open. In total, 48 of the 50 states will hold state legislature elections.

Tim Storey, analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says the 1998 elections are the most competitive in history.

There are several reasons, he says, including the large number of seats where the incumbent is not running for re-election. Those have increased because several states have adopted limits on how many terms any one person can serve.

Also, Storey says, because congressional and state legislative district boundaries are decided by the states, the partisan control of legislative chambers will play a significant role in determining the composition of the new districts.

Before the 1990s, Democrats dominated state legislatures and had an especially strong presence in the South. By 1996, Republicans controlled both chambers in 19 states, the most since 1968. Democrats control both chambers in 20 states.

If Republicans pick up about 178 state legislative seats on November 3, they will have more state legislators in office than Democrats for the first time since 1952.

But, Kevin Mack, head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign, told the Christian Science Monitor that no matter what the predictions for this year's outcomes are, the winner is usually the person who worked hardest, made the most fund raising calls, and went out to meet with people the most.

(Another in RFE/RL's series previewing 1998 general election in the US)