If you are very attentive, and live in one of those places where regular state and local political news coverage survives, you may catch snippets of information about state legislative races in your area. More likely, you will see paid advertising or receive direct-mail involving such contests.
That’s a shame. Thanks to ideological polarization and gridlock at the national level, state governments are often where the action is. And a confluence of Republican power and conservative money at the state level is coordinating a wave of right-wing activism that has become both a substitute and a stimulus for national policy.
With Congress in perpetual gridlock thanks to divided control of the federal government and the availability of the Senate filibuster, the trend at the state level is in the opposite direction. In 36 states—the largest number since 1952—one party controls the governorship and both branches of the legislature. In fully half the states, one party has veto-proof supermajorities in the legislature.
Activists, especially conservatives, are using this power to adopt a nationalized agenda in state legislatures. This is most notable on the abortion issue, where either “fetal pain” bans on second-trimester abortions or “health” regulations designed to close down clinics have been enacted by Republican-controlled legislatures, especially in the South (though many of these laws remain in legal limbo). But more generally, the long-standing networking activity of conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC) has resulted in “cookie-cutter” laws enacted on a wide range of issues, ranging from the “Stand Your Ground” gun laws associated with the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, to the “Right to Farm” legislation neutering environmental and animal-rights regulation in the Midwest. In “citizen-legislature” states with limited legislative staff, short sessions and in many cases term limits, national groups often play a substantial role in agenda-setting.
A relatively new development is an ideological twist on Justice Brandeis’ notion of the states serving as “laboratories of democracy,” where one-party control is leading to self-consciously radical experimentation in permanently changing the political culture. That’s underway in North Carolina, where multi-millionaire activist Art Pope heavily financed a Republican takeover of the Legislature; became Republican governor Pat McCrory’s budget director (he stepped down on August 7, overstaying a one-year commitment); and aggressively and successfully promoted an extremist policy agenda developed by the Pope-financed Civitas Institute, a local think tank. It’s also happening, with less success, in Kansas, where radical tax-cutting justified as an economic development tool may be backfiring on Governor Sam Brownback and the conservative GOP faction that controls the Legislature.
Republican-controlled legislatures have also focused on that most important of state political prerogatives, regulation of elections.
It’s no accident that since 2010, ascendent GOP state governments in the presidential battleground states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin have fought to narrow the path to the ballot box via voter ID requirements and restrictions in early voting. The virtual abolition of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County decision has emboldened Republican legislators in the nine states previously “covered” by the VRA (eight of them with Republican governors and legislatures), which are now liberated for the first time since 1965 from preclearing new election laws with the Justice Department.
The GOP midterm turnout advantage (thanks to its older and whiter voting base) is expected to produce more gains
The most long-lasting effect of one party-dominance at the state level is almost certainly the redistricting power, especially when wielded by a party holding both branches of the legislature and the governorship (sometimes called a “trifecta”). With courts making it clear there are no constitutional limits on “political gerrymanders” (i.e., mapping schemes designed to maximize on party’s legislative strength), and with diminished scrutiny over racial/ethnic gerrymandering, a party holding a trifecta and utilizing sophisticated mapping software can entrench itself both at the congressional and state legislative levels. That’s why the 2010 GOP “sweep” (a net gain of 20 state legislative chambers and six governorships) was so important. Thanks to redistricting (along with superior “efficiency” in the distribution of Republican votes), in 2012 Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives who collectively won 1.4 million more votes than their Republican opponents won only 201 of 435 seats.
In 2014, a recently emerging GOP midterm turnout advantage (thanks to its older and whiter voting base) is expected to produce more gains, though nothing like those of 2010. Republicans are targeting three House and five Senate chambers for takeovers, while Democrats are targeting two House and two Senate chambers. Given the 2010 landslide and high anti-incumbent sentiment, you might expect Democrats to make gains, but at this point only one gubernatorial pickup, in Pennsylvania, looks certain.
If things look a bit grim for Democrats at the state level for the immediate future, it’s worth remembering that 10 years ago there was a similar conventional wisdom that a successful redistricting cycle had given Republicans a “lock” on the House and state legislatures until the next cycle. That “lock” lasted only until 2006.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger of the Washington Monthly, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.