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One-Party Control Opens States to Partisan Rush

CHICAGO — Come January, more than two-thirds of the states will be under single-party control, raising the prospect that bold partisan agendas — on both ends of the political spectrum — will flourish over the next couple of years.

Butch Martin | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

Though the Nov. 6 election maintained divided government in Washington, the picture is starkly different in capitals from California to Florida: one party will hold the governor's office and majorities in both legislative chambers in at least 37 states, the largest number in 60 years and a significant jump from even two years ago.

"For quite a period of time, people were voting for divided government because they wanted compromise, middle ground," said State Senator Thomas M. Bakk, the minority leader — and soon to be majority leader — in Minnesota. Democrats there seized control of both legislative chambers, creating single-party rule in St. Paul for the first time in more than two decades. "But they've come to realize that compromise is getting awfully hard to accomplish. The parties have gotten too rigid. Maybe this whole experiment with voting for divided government is starting to wane. I think that's what happened here."

Twenty-four states will be controlled by Republicans, including Alaska and Wisconsin, where the party took the State Senate, and North Carolina, where the governorship changed hands. At least 13 states will be Democratic, including Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon, where control of the legislatures shifted, and California, where the already dominant Democrats gained a supermajority in both chambers. (The situation in New York, where the potential for single-party control by the Democrats rests on the makeup of the Senate, is still uncertain.)

Power will be split in, at most, 12 capitals — the fewest, said Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, since 1952.

So while President Obama and Republican leaders in Washington have made postelection hints of an openness to compromise, many in the states may see no such need.

"The fact is, they can do whatever they want now," Chris Larson, the Democrats' newly chosen Senate minority leader in Wisconsin, said of the Republicans in his state. He noted, glumly, that they have been holding planning meetings behind closed doors since the election.

Robin Vos, a Republican selected last week as the speaker of Wisconsin's Assembly, voiced a willingness to work with Democrats, but also quickly ticked off plans to press for an income-tax cut, education changes and a "top-to-bottom review" of state regulations.

In Minnesota, where a budget fight last year between a Republican-led Legislature and the Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, led to a shutdown of state government for two weeks, the governor seemed buoyed.

"We'll trade gridlock for progress," said Mr. Dayton, who added that his plans included increasing taxes on the richest Minnesotans and devoting more money to education. Still, Mr. Dayton, whose term is up in two years, sounded a note of caution even as he huddled with aides to strategize after the election results were in.

"I said to my staff, 'The easier two years are over, and the harder two years are now beginning, because we have the added responsibility to lead,' " Mr. Dayton said. "And this is a responsibility I welcome, but given the challenges the state faces and our country faces these days, it'll be a lot of hard work."

Some politicians are mindful that one-party control carries with it one-party blame — and a risk that a particularly partisan agenda will eventually irk voters and lead to a reversal in the next election. In Maine, where the Republicans swept into sole control of the capital two years ago, the Democrats this month took back both chambers of the Legislature. Some viewed the outcome as an indication of overreaching by Republicans, including Gov. Paul R. LePage, who has sharply opposed the new health care law and has moved to cut the number of residents eligible for Medicaid.

Representative Mark Waller, newly elected as the Republican minority leader in Colorado, said: "The Democrats absolutely have the votes to do anything they want to do, but that's a pretty tricky proposition. They've got to be very careful about how they do what they do." Democrats in the state have already pledged to bring back a proposal to allow civil unions for same-sex couples, which was blocked during a special session this year.

There is also a risk of intraparty factions and, in the words of Fred A. Risser, a Wisconsin state legislator since 1956 (and the longest-serving sitting state lawmaker in the country), intramural fights. In Kansas, which has one-party Republican control, conservative Republicans have increasingly battled with moderate Republicans. And though Democrats have run Illinois for a decade, leaders have still been unable to find an answer to the state's profound financial woes, including the most gravely unfinanced pension liabilities in the nation.

Over all in this election, Democrats had more victories among the roughly 6,000 state legislative seats that were up for grabs, benefiting in part from the presidential victory. One factor in the Democrats' net of more than 150 legislative seats nationwide was the stunning number of seats — more than 100 — they gained in New Hampshire's State House, taking control of that chamber. But both parties made gains in the number of states with single-party control.

Not every state fits the dynamics of single-party domination. In Nebraska, the state's unicameral Legislature is officially nonpartisan, making one-party control in the Republican-leaning state technically impossible. And in Rhode Island, the governor, an independent, shares power with a Democratic General Assembly.

In New York, election results appeared to show that the Democrats had seized control of the Senate, giving them hold over Albany and leaving only 11 state capitals divided. But the practical outcome remains murky, with votes still being counted in several races, talk of some Democrats' caucusing with the Republicans, and leaders on both sides expressing confidence that their party will ultimately hold on to control.

Nationally, though, the shift to single-party dominance in state government is pronounced; only eight years ago, 30 capitals were divided between the parties. Some state leaders attribute the change to partisan influences at play in the once-a-decade redrawing of political districts before the election this year. Others say it reflects a weariness and dissatisfaction among voters with the discord and gridlock of split control.

Either way, the result is likely to speed along state legislative proposals from both corners, experts said, but less so from the middle.

"We are going to see government activism to the left and to the right that we haven't seen in years," said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "If you wondered what Washington would look like under single-party rule, the states are a laboratory for that now."

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