Legislative elections in 44 states left Republicans heartened by continued progress wresting power in Southern state houses, while victories elsewhere helped Democrats pick up several chambers and left them feeling that they were able to arrest two decades of steady GOP gains.
In the end, state legislatures emerged from Election Day where they began — almost perfectly divided between the two parties.
Separated by only about 60 seats out of more than 7,000 nationwide as voters went to the polls, it looked Wednesday that margin could narrow even further. Whether the GOP would hold on to the narrow majority of seats it gained in 2002 depended on final results from some states that could take days to sort out.
Democrats appeared to have secured a net gain of at least two chambers, and possibly more, but Republicans were assured of continuing to hold at least one more chamber nationally than the Democrats.
"There's no light between the two parties," said Tim Storey, elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The close overall balance — and a large number of closely divided chambers — means legislative leaders will have trouble pushing through their agendas in areas like education and public safety unless they can keep party members in line. Storey likened the task to carrying frogs in a wheelbarrow.
"Anytime you move somewhere, one jumps out," he said. "You've got to chase every one that jumps off. By the time you get that one and bring it back, another one's jumped off."
Both parties claimed victory, with Republicans pointing to their wins in GOP-leaning Southern states that had nonetheless resisted backing the party at the state level, and Democrats pointing to successes in a variety of states across different regions.
The GOP's biggest victory came in the Georgia House, where Republicans entered the night down 106-73 but pulled out a majority with the help of redrawn districts. The win gave them both chambers of the Legislature and the governorship, stripping away the last vestiges of a Democratic stranglehold on state government that dated to Reconstruction.
Republicans also gained an elected majority in the Tennessee Senate for the first time since Reconstruction — the GOP briefly held a majority in 1996 after two Democrats switched parties — and took the Oklahoma House for the first time in 83 years. In Indiana, they took the House, giving GOP Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels a majority in both houses.
The so-called "red states" that have backed President Bush in the last two elections "have been voting for Republicans at the top of the ticket and it's working its way down ballot," said Alex Johnson, executive director of Republican Legislative Campaign Committee.
But Democrats considered their state house results a bright spot on a night when Sen. John Kerry lost the presidential race. Democrats earned a tie in the Iowa Senate and broke one in Oregon's; in Colorado, which went to President Bush, they appeared poised to gain both the House and Senate for the first time since 1960.
"Democrats in those red states did a very good job of running smart, localized campaigns," said Michael Davies, Johnson's counterpart at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "We've really tightened it up and we think, on the whole, it was a good night for Democrats at the legislative level."
The Democrats scored at least a moral victory in Minnesota, where they reduced a 30-seat Republican edge to a 68-66 GOP advantage. They still held hopes for a tie, should a recount turn one district they lost by fewer than 100 votes.
Storey said the near-perfect division among the parties nationwide means leaders will have to govern from the center: "I think that means the states are going to have to seek compromise. Neither party is going to have the upper hand."