Political control of several key state legislatures could change hands on Election Day, raising the chance for one-party domination of swing states Michigan and Pennsylvania, booming Nevada and Northeast giant New York.
Democrats are cautiously optimistic that enthusiasm and turnout for Barack Obama's presidential campaign will help their candidates far down the ticket. Republicans hope to steer clear of the national mood that has turned against the GOP and focus instead on local issues.
Though state legislative races draw far less attention than contests for the White House, Congress and governor, the party that controls the legislatures has an outsized role nationally — crafting domestic policy, drawing congressional districts and laying the foundation for political stars in the future.
Obama is only four years removed from a stint in the Illinois Legislature. Democratic control there first gave him the spotlight and the chance to pass legislation that he often cites on the campaign trail.
Nationally, Democrats hold their strongest majority in more than a decade, controlling the legislatures in 23 states. Republicans dominate in 14 states. Twelve states are split, and Nebraska is nonpartisan.
In some ways, Democrats are suffering from too much of a good thing: The party's victories since 2004 eroded GOP gains from the 1990s, but made it that much harder to find opportunities for growth now.
"We're doing a little more defense than we have, and a little less offense," said Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, chairman of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that has raised more than $6-million to spend on legislative races in the past two years.
Republicans see cause for hope, though they make a point to avoid national issues because polls show widespread dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans in Congress.
"You certainly can't omit or be unaware of the national environment. But if you run your race on local issues, you can separate yourself very easily," said Carrie Cantrell of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which provides cash and other resources to help win legislative seats.
Forty-four states will hold legislative elections, with 5,824 seats — or 79 percent of all legislative seats — before the voters.