When it comes to control of state government, Republicans dominated at record levels during the Obama years. On Tuesday, they somehow managed to become even more dominant.
In part because Americans like a check and balance on their president, in part because Republicans played their cards right, Republicans grabbed more of America’s statehouses and governor’s mansions during the Obama administration than at any time in the modern era. And they held onto those majorities Tuesday.
Results are still trickling in, but it looks like Republicans will still control an all-time high 69 of 99 state legislative chambers. They’ll hold at least 33 governorships, tying a 94-year-old record.
That means that come 2017, they’ll have total control of government in at least 25 states, and partial control in 20 states. According to population calculations by the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, that translates to roughly 80 percent of the population living in a state either all or partially controlled by Republicans.
Things are just as good for the GOP at the federal level, where Republicans have reached the trifecta. They just won the White House, they’ve kept their majorities in Congress and they have a chance to reshape the Supreme Court to a strong conservative ideological leaning.
Democrats, meanwhile, will go into 2017 without any significant gains in Congress and with total control of just five states. (Republicans managed to tie Connecticut’s state Senate, but a tie breaks for Democrats thanks to the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor presiding over the chamber. So technically the state stays in Democratic control.)
Election Day was largely a stalemate between the parties at the state level, but Republicans only needed to pick up one or two chambers and governors’ mansions to make history.
And they did, despite our predictions otherwise. Republicans flipped at least three new state legislative chambers, including taking control of the last state legislative chamber in the South, the Kentucky statehouse.
In Wisconsin, Republicans will have their largest state legislative majority since the 1970s, and in North Carolina, Republicans held onto their super-majority in the legislature.
Democrats had their own successes: They flipped the New Mexico and Alaska statehouses from red to blue and managed to retake both of Nevada’s chambers. They expanded their majorities in chambers in California, Washington and New York. And they are on the verge of knocking off a Republican governor in North Carolina – one of the hardest feats to pull off in politics. In two other states that Donald Trump won big (Montana and West Virginia), they held onto the governorship.
But Democrats’ success came in isolated pockets. When you look at the post-2016 map, the story is still one of absolute Republican dominance.
And it means Democrats’ surge to power in 2006 and 2008 has been completely decimated. My colleague Philip Bump visualized this another way –trendlines plummeting downward for Democrats at all levels of governance:
Democrats are still soul searching for what went wrong on Tuesday. But there are a few reasons that help explain Republicans’ steady march to dominance over the past eight years.
The simplest one is President Obama. American voters like a check and balance, says state legislative handicapper Louis Jacobson, so it’s not unusual to see the party locked out of the White House pick up seats in Congress and state government. This was particularly pronounced during the Obama years – more than 900 Democratic state legislators were defeated.
One of the reasons it was so pronounced was that Republicans poured money and attention into state legislative races at the exact right time to multiply their gains.
Fueled by millionaire Art Pope, they invested $30 million into winning state legislature battles, particularly states where the legislature was up for grabs and that legislature had a say in redistricting.
The effort paid off. After the 2010 Census, Republicans got to draw the electoral maps for state and congressional seats in about three times as many states as Democrats did. And in 2012, Republicans took over the House of Representatives with a historic 234-201 majority – despite the fact Democratic House candidates got 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidate.
Then there’s the fact that Democrats and Republicans increasingly live in separate communities. As I wrote in July, political geographic sorting is harmful for their efforts to control Congress.
[The urban shift is] bad news for Democrats trying to use Donald Trump’s unpopularity to chip away at or even erase Republicans’ historic majority in the House of Representatives. Because Democrats are clustered in one area of the state, they have less of a say in who represents congressional (and state-level) districts in the rest of the state.
The sheer fact Republicans control the White House will probably help Democrats climb out of this hole, but it could take awhile.
In the 2018 midterms, they’ll be defending at least five U.S. Senate seats in red states. Compound that with the fact that right now Democrats are a leaderless and directionless party, and it’s safe to say Republicans could hold onto their record control of America for years. (New electoral-map drawing begins in 2020, so Democrats don’t have a lot of time to catch up.)
Before Tuesday, Republicans controlled so much of America’s state governments that we – and other smart people – predicted they were going to lose least some of their grip, simply because Democrats were so far down they had nowhere to go but up.
Like most of our predictions about the 2016 election, we were wrong. Republicans are still the dominant party in America and likely will be for some time.
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