RALEIGH, N.C.–Going into the 2004 election cycle, Republicans had enjoyed a string of steady gains within the nation’s state governments. There were GOP governors in 28 of the 50 states. In 2002, for the first time in half a century, more Republicans than Democrats were elected to state legislatures, and going into the 2004 election they controlled 53 legislative chambers versus 44 for the Democrats (Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature).
As President Bush won reelection Tuesday night and the Republican Congress become even more Republican, the GOP’s fortunes were somewhat more mixed in down-ballot races. Although incumbent Republican Gov. Craig Benson was upended in New Hampshire–and despite the fact that Democrat Brian Schweitzer won the top job in Montana after years of Republican dominance there–Republicans picked up Indiana (with Mitch Daniels, Bush’s former budget director) and Missouri (with Secretary of State Matt Blunt). Most delicious of all was the apparent victory of Dino Rossi in the state of Washington, which hasn’t had a Republican governor in decades. With virtually all of the precincts reporting as of early Wednesday morning, he was leading Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire by fewer than a thousand votes.
If he holds on, Republicans will have a net gain of one governorship. And the worst-case scenario, then, is that the party retains its nationwide edge. The outcome is actually better than it sounds, because Republicans will have won two of the three big prizes of the night in Indiana and Missouri (Democratic Gov. Mike Easley was, well, easily reelected in North Carolina).
Republicans didn’t fare quite as well in state legislative contests. Although some returns are still coming in, it appears that Democrats will pick up six legislative chambers from the Republicans. Four chambers will switch to the GOP. As far as unified control is concerned, Republicans enjoyed an advantage going into Election Night of controlling both chambers in 21 states, versus the Democrats’ unified control in only 17. Now that most of the votes are in, there will be many more split legislatures and each party will fully control the legislatures of 17 states. Democrats also appear to have regained a slight edge nationwide in legislative seats, though that has more symbolic than practical value.
Perhaps the most disappointing losses for Republicans this year were in Colorado, where Gov. Bill Owens will no longer enjoy the benefits of a friendly legislature. Democrats have won an 18-17 majority in the Colorado senate and also appear to have captured the Colorado house by a narrow margin. A big factor was the huge inflow of soft money–I mean “independent expenditures” and “527s”–into Democratic efforts in several key legislative contests in the state. On the other hand, Republicans continued to codify the realignment of the South by winning the Tennessee senate–for the first time in nearly a century–and the Georgia house, which will (with the 2002 election of Gov. Sonny Perdue and the subsequent capture of the state senate) constitute the first time Republicans have been in power in Atlanta since, gulp, a certain period that began when Confederate General John B. Hood fled the city in 1864.
Republicans essentially played defense in state contests this year–and played it pretty well. Two key issues worked in their favor. One was the issue of state budgets and taxes. In most places where Republicans were clearly distinguished as the party of fiscal conservatism, they prevailed. Daniels in Indiana and Blunt in Missouri were particularly effective on the issue. When Democrats were able to make the distinction fuzzy–as Democratic candidates for governor in North Carolina and Montana did–they had better luck.
The other boon to the GOP was the presence of ballot items banning same-sex marriage, which turned out conservatives not only for the president and the congressional candidates but also for state candidates in places such as Georgia and Oklahoma. But it also seems that, in some states, legislative candidates probably counted too much on being able to draw distinctions with their Democratic rivals on the issue. The reality is that politicians know which way the wind is blowing here, and many nimble Democrats successfully took the issue off the table by endorsing ballot initiatives or otherwise tacking conservative on marriage and other cultural issues in key legislative contests. Kerry wasn’t as nimble, but then again, that’s not exactly a revelation.
At the state level, the Republicans basically won a retention election. They remain highly competitive now all the way down the ballot in many states, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.
–John Hood is president of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation and author of the forthcoming Selling the Dream: Why Advertising is Good Business.