State legislative races remain local, but candidates focus more on national issues

Thursday, November 2nd 2006, 3:44 am
By: News On 6

Even as candidates for state legislatures stake campaigns in familiar territory _ jobs, schools, taxes _ some races have broadened to include issues that a few years ago would never have been on their agendas.

Some of the tightest legislative races in Colorado, and to a lesser extent in states like Iowa and North Carolina, include debate over what to do about illegal immigration, long considered the responsibility of the federal government.

In a number of states, particularly in the West, candidates are having broad debates over property rights and government's power of eminent domain. More legislative candidates are talking to voters about how they'll work to improve access to health care.

"They're trying to make it a huge wedge issue,'' says state Rep. Jim Riesberg, a Democrat from Greeley, Colo., of ads run by Republican interest groups criticizing his stand on immigration. "Now I'm being accused of a lot of things that are really national issues. I'm being accused of wanting to give amnesty, of wanting to give Social Security to illegal aliens, of not closing our borders ... Television, radio, fliers. They've used them all.''

His opponent, Dave Owen, a Republican state senator leaving that office because of term limits, says all the talk about immigration is a response to voter concerns, even though the state legislature has already dedicated a special session to the issue.

"It's a big issue,'' he says. "I get calls on it. I go to the candidates' forum and all that and it's brought up all the time. It's still on voters' minds.''

The talking points of legislative candidates vary significantly by state. In Michigan, where a depressed auto industry has fanned fears of job cuts, candidates across the state are focused on what to do to mend the economy. In Pennsylvania, voter anger over lawmakers' passage of raises for themselves last year has led to politicking by candidates who say they'll do better and work to make government more transparent.

For all the campaign rhetoric, experts say that the outcome of state legislative races will still largely be shaped by personalities and connections, the power of incumbency and the ability to spend, in elections with traditionally low turnout.

"Honestly, I do not hear that (the economy) is really determining who wins and who loses at the grass roots level in legislative races,'' said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics and a former state legislator. "It's all personality. It's all money.''

Still, the attention legislative candidates are paying to issues beyond the usual territory shows some things have changed, albeit by degree. At a time when Congress is deadlocked on many difficult issues, state lawmakers are more willing to take them on, said Tim Storey, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

At the same time, political turmoil on a national level has made things increasingly uncertain for legislative candidates, who may find it difficult to differentiate themselves from their Washington counterparts.

"One of the best lines I heard was a legislator who said 'I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's possible I could lose my seat because of events the weekend before the election in Baghdad,''' Storey said.

The dissatisfaction among voters has been clear to Julie Dennis, a Democratic candidate for state Senate from Muskegon, Mich., as she campaigns door-to-door.

"One guy said to me, 'Are you the incumbent?'' Dennis recalls. "I said no and he said, 'Then you've got my vote.'''

Dennis is trying to seize on such sentiment, telling voters that the Bush administration's foreign trade policies have jeopardized her district's manufacturing jobs.

But even as the debate broadens, candidates for legislative seats are continuing to press local issues.

In Monroe County, Mich., about halfway between Detroit and Toledo, Republican candidate John Manor and Democrat Kate Ebli are in what both say is a tight race for a state legislative seat. In a district where fears of job cuts by struggling auto and auto parts makers run high, both are telling voters they are better qualified to help revive the region and state's economy.

"It's the biggest issue that's on people's minds here in Michigan. Even if someone's retired, they're concerned about their kids and grandkids,'' Ebli said.

To get her message out, Ebli estimates she has visited the homes of 30,000 voters. Manor says his door-to-door efforts have taken him to half of the 48,000 homes his campaign has visited. It's the only way, they say.

"I'm just about done with my third pair (of shoes) right now,'' Manor says, summarizing the toll of his door-to-door campaign. "You definitely want something that's got good heel support.''