The big elephant in the room that nobody's talking about

republican victories in state capitolsI’ve begun to notice a trend that seems to have escaped most political news coverage in recent years. Since 2010, Republicans have made massive inroads in state legislative chambers and governors’ mansions across the country. This is especially true after the most recent elections in November.

While most mainstream media coverage was focused on the partisan battle for control of the Senate, the GOP made massive gains in state legislatures in all regions of the country. The motions of statehouse politics might not be as sexy or headline-grabbing as the constant drama seen in D.C. in recent years, it is arguably more consequential for American politics in the long-run.

According to Ballotpedia, Republicans now control a significant majority of state governments across the country. Of the 98 partisan legislative chambers in the United States (a number which excludes Nebraska’s nonpartisan unicameral legislature), Republicans now control 67.

republican victories in state capitols
Trifecta control

In terms of governorships, Republicans are in charge of 32 after the 2014 election, leaving Democrats in control of only 18. Most strikingly, these numbers mean that Republicans have control of both legislative chambers and governorships (a “trifecta,” as described in the image on the right) in 23 states, whereas Democrats have complete control of just 7 states.

This significant Republican advantage at the state-level poses serious long-term problems for the Democratic Party’s ability to compete in future elections. Unless Democrats engage in serious efforts to reinvigorate themselves in state and local elections, they may well find themselves trapped in a world where they can only compete effectively for the White House.

While the presidency is an undeniably powerful office, it is of little use when the other levels of government are out of your hands. If Republicans continue to control one or both Houses of Congress or a significant majority of state governments, Democrats may one day be locked in the Oval Office as if it were a prison cell.

Some see a trend that will favor the Republican Party for decades to come. I am hesitant to endorse such a pessimistic vision of the Democratic Party’s future, but I am also significantly less bullish than many liberal activists seem to be. If they are to continue to compete as a viable national party, Democrats must remember that there is much more to effectively controlling the country’s political machinery than just winning the presidency every four years.

There are a number of benefits that these Republican successes grant the Party. Most obviously, it gives them a substantial head-start on using the lower levels of government as laboratories for their preferred policy issues which they will likely one day try to bring up to the national level.

Examples of such policies have already been on display in recent years. One need only look to the current budgetary debacle in Kansas created by Governor Sam Brownback or the kerfuffle over union bargaining rights started by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin for illustrations of what is likely to come if the GOP makes further gains at the national level.

Another benefit is the deep bench of experienced political operatives that the GOP currently has. With so many new conservative politicians entering the ranks of state legislatures, the Democrats will find themselves powerless to stop an emerging experience gap between their legislators and those aligned with the GOP.

This numerical superiority in experienced legislators will give the Republicans a major advantage in picking candidates for national races while Democrats are left to pick through the aging scraps of their ranks. This dynamic will only serve to accelerate a vicious cycle in which the GOP’s advantage at these lower levels of government reinforces itself and produces an even greater crop of potential national candidates for years to come.

republican victories in state capitols
Republicans are better at gerrymandering

One final effect of their growing control over state governments is the GOP’s ability to redraw district lines to favor their own congressional candidates. State legislatures are responsible for drawing congressional district in most states, so the party that controls them can choose the voters they want to represent.

Prior to the 2010 elections, the Republicans put a massive amount of resources into their state-level electoral efforts with the knowledge that the 2010 Census was a brilliant opportunity to seize the reins of the House of Representatives. This gerrymandering provided the GOP with a fundamental electoral advantage that undeniably contributed to their successes in congressional elections in 2012 and 2014.

I have seen the adverse effects of one-party dominance firsthand during my work in the 2014 midterm election cycle. When one party takes total control of the levers of power in a state, officeholders often find themselves tempted to alter electoral rules and regulations to favor their own party.

A prime example of such gross partisan manipulation can be seen clearly in my own home state of Kansas. Our current Secretary of State, the infamous Kris Kobach, is currently attempting to change electoral rules to allow straight-ticket party voting and impose further difficulties for people attempting to register to vote or cast their ballots.

It may be too late for the Democratic Party to halt the coming GOP wave that appears only to grow with each new election. 2016 is likely to favor the Democrats in the Senate and the presidency given the Party’s coalitional advantage in presidential election years and that more Republican Senate seats will be up for grabs than was the case in 2014.

Until Democrats invest in state and local party building in the way that Republicans have in recent years, however, they will likely find themselves locked out of state legislatures and, consequently, the House of Representatives, for many years to come. And unless they can do so and see measurable results before 2020 when the next Census occurs, the GOP will be able to lock in the gerrymandered congressional advantage that they currently enjoy until at least 2030.

I don’t have much hope that they will do so in time.

I'm currently a graduate student in political science at the University of Kansas, writing my master's thesis about the interplay between institutional structures in political systems and government spending patterns (it's even less interesting than it sounds). Much of my free time is dedicated to obsessively listening to news podcasts and reading news articles so, I figured "ehh, what the hell, I might as well put some of that knowledge to work." So, here I am.


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