Where the Real Political Action Is Happening: The Statehouses

Washington is gridlocked and focused on the presidential election, but bitter fights rage for control of state capitals around the country.

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Colorado Senate Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino speaks at a May 14 rally for a civil-unions bill, which was later defeated. (Associated Press)

If you wanted a ringside seat for some high-flying political drama last month, Denver would have been hard to beat. The statehouse pyrotechnics over civil unions for gay couples --a late-night standoff, a filibuster, and a tense countdown to the end of the session -- were much more exciting than the scene in Washington, where legislative work has mostly come to a standstill in the midst of a presidential-election year.

In a few months' time, the White House race will suck up most of the oxygen in Colorado, as President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney flood the state with TV ads and muscular get-out-the-vote operations. But just as crucial to the future of the Centennial State are its legislative elections, and how they turn out will be tied to the performance of the Obama and Romney campaigns.

The Colorado House, where Republicans hold a precarious 33-32 majority and all 65 seats are up, is one of some dozen legislative chambers around the country that could flip from one party to the other. Many of them are in the same swing states, and hinge on the same battleground counties, where the presidential race will be decided.

"The biggest impact is the ground game and we've seen it over and over again," said Tim Storey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Clearly whoever wins the White House always has coattails."

The GOP staged an unprecedented takeover of state legislative bodies in 2010, adding over 500 seats to their ranks, capturing control of 55 legislative chambers, and increasing the number of states where they had control of both chambers -- to 26, up from 15 in 2008. They're looking to expand their turf this year, while Democrats are hoping to stage something of a comeback after their stinging setback two years ago.

The Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, responsible for electing Republican state lawmakers, is pouring at least $35 million into legislative campaigns across the country. A spokesman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee said its candidates would also be well-funded, but declined to give specific spending figures. While legislative races tend to fly mostly underneath the radar in comparison to the intense scrutiny attracted by federal elections, the implications are huge.

"With gridlock in Washington, it's where real policy is being done in the United States right now," Storey said. "States have to balance their budgets, which means making tough decisions year in and year out, allotting hundreds of billions of dollars on things that really matter to people."

If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Arizona's controversial immigration law or strikes down Obama's federal health-care legislation, state legislatures may become even more influential -- bearing the responsibility for coming up with their own health care and immigration solutions. They already are leading the charge on controversial social issues that Congress largely avoids: same-sex marriage, abortion rights, even medical marijuana.

Dan Roth, communications director for the DLCC, said that some of the more controversial measures taken up by state legislatures in the last few years -- the Virginia House's failed requirement for transvaginal ultrasounds before abortions, for example -- have created the right conditions for a backlash.

"We've seen a lot of ideology and a lot of ideological discussions in state legislatures and I think voters have had it, whether it's issues involving reproductive rights for women, workers' rights, or voter intimidation laws," he said.

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Naureen Khan is a staff reporter at National Journal.

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