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Democrats Gain Strength in Legislatures

November 06, 1986|TOM REDBURN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Despite vigorous Republican efforts to gain ground in the state legislatures, Democrats took control of at least one additional statehouse in Tuesday's elections. Republicans lost an estimated 187 seats at the state level, a serious setback to their claim that the GOP is gathering strength at the grass roots and mounting a broad offensive for the post-1990 congressional redistricting.

While Republicans made a strong performance in garnering eight additional governorships and losing only a handful of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the results of the legislative races also undercut Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr.'s statement Tuesday night that the GOP was winning at all levels except in the battle for the U.S. Senate.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats managed to increase the number of states where they control both legislative houses from 26 to 27. The Republicans, who previously dominated 11 state legislatures, were left with just nine states under their control.

Other States Split

The other states were split between the parties, except for Nebraska, where the single house is organized on a nonpartisan basis.

Democrats, however, had enough strength in two of those other states to control their legislatures as well.

Democrats overturned Republican control of both houses of the Connecticut Legislature, regained dominance in Minnesota and apparently picked up enough strength to organize both houses in both Alaska and Vermont.

Republicans ended Democratic control in Oregon. The GOP also scored gains in Montana, by ending a previous tie in the lower house and pulling even in the state Senate.

Republicans gained control of the Nevada state Senate, but lost their majority in its House.

Republicans had set a goal of controlling a majority of the state legislative chambers by 1991, in hopes of making huge strides in Congress after the districts are redrawn to reflect the 1990 census. Party strategists insisted they were not discouraged by the results this year.

"We're fighting an uphill battle to end a long-term Democratic control at the local level," said Terry Wade of the Republican National Committee. "We've held our own in the midterm elections."

Shift in Strategy

A subtle shift in Republican thinking seems to be taking place, however. Instead of seeking control at the state level, GOP leaders now appear willing to settle for a stalemate in most states. They argue that they can prevent Democratic gerrymandering if they hold at least a governorship or control one house of the state legislature.

"Our objective is just to get a fair redistricting in the states," Wade added.

Many political analysts, however, argue that gerrymandering is not as widespread as the Republicans claim.

Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, acknowledged that Democrats took advantage of their control of the California Legislature in 1980 to draw political lines to their advantage, and that Republicans followed similar practices in Indiana, but he said that most of the legislatures established congressional districts that fairly reflected the political makeup of their states.

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