Politics & Policy

Beyond the Next Two Years

Yesterday’s elections will have long-lasting effects.

Now that the voting is over, political pundits are trying to predict what impact the 2010 elections will have on the next two years: on taxes, health care, judicial confirmations, and the presidential election. But Tuesday’s results are also going to have several important effects in the years beyond 2012. Here are four.

First, the GOP is now in about the best imaginable position to gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives as a result of the 2010 census. House-district lines will soon be drawn in about 17 states, almost evenly split between states that will lose seats and states that will gain them due to population shifts since 2000. Republicans now appear set to control the governor’s mansion in 13 of them. The governorships of New York, Massachusetts, and perhaps Illinois proved beyond the GOP’s grasp, but the redrawing of lines will be heavily influenced by Republican chief executives in Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Nevada, and elsewhere. This matters especially because several of the affected states have Democratic majorities in their legislatures, including New Jersey and Nevada. There, GOP governors will be weighing in for their party; in other states, Republicans will dominate the process. While we’re at it, the same census results are going to shift Electoral College votes to generally Republican states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, and Utah, making it less necessary than ever for GOP presidential candidates to win Northeastern and even Midwestern states like Ohio.

Second: That said, the structure of the Senate and that of the Electoral College are probably safe for another few years. While progressives occasionally call for constitutional revision — for, say, weighting Senate representation by population or scrapping the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote– the powerful forces of self-interest continue to give the Democrats every reason to maintain this part of our legal structure. As was the case four years ago, America’s 20 smallest states continue to elect senators from the two parties in almost equal numbers. In fact, for the next two years they are going to be represented by more Democrats than Republicans in the Senate. For every conservative Wyoming or Mississippi, there’s a liberal Hawaii, Vermont, or Delaware. Democrats may have their base in the urban areas of large states, but their elected officials have no incentive to try to slash the disproportionate power of smaller states.

Third, if presidents are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of governors, the two parties are now in very unequal positions looking ahead to 2016 and beyond. Among the governors of America’s 25 largest states, Democrats have a strikingly weak bench of potential presidential or vice-presidential candidates — only a few, such as Missouri’s Jay Nixon, Washington’s Christine Gregoire, and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, are even minimally plausible in that role. There’s little to no hope for California’s Jerry Brown (72 years old, a retreaded national candidate several times over), Deval Patrick (who struggled to get reelected in one of the country’s most Democratic states), or Mark Dayton (for too many reasons to count). The same goes for the uninspiring Pat Quinn of Illinois and Andrew Cuomo, a liberal New Yorker who is unlikely to appeal nationally.

Republicans, in contrast, now have deep benches. Among the governors of sizable states, at least a dozen are minimally plausible and several are a lot more than that. The strongest include Mitch Daniels, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, and maybe Bob McDonnell, John Kasich, and Nikki Haley, depending on how successfully they govern. Another half-dozen newcomers have yet to prove themselves but seem minimally plausible from this early vantage point, including Scott Walker, Bill Haslam, Tom Corbett, Susana Martinez, and Rick Snyder. Of the GOP governors in America’s 25 biggest states, only Florida’s Rick Scott seems not to be minimally plausible for a national ticket.

There are some obvious caveats. Presidents don’t have to have been governors. Strong candidates could emerge from smaller states (think Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin). Many on these lists will not survive the ravages of time. And elections in 2012 will produce several new governors (mostly in smaller states). But if governors stack the presidential decks, the Republicans are in a much better position than the Democrats.

Finally, the GOP now has the largest crop in its modern history of female and minority officeholders, thanks largely though not entirely to the 2010 races. Most attention has gone to Indian-American governors Bobby Jindal (first elected in 2007) and Nikki Haley, Hispanic senator Marco Rubio, African-American House members Tim Scott and Allen West, and Hispanic governors Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval. GOP caucuses also boast new Hispanic House members such as Jaime Herrera, Raul Labrador, and Quico Canseco, as well as a greater number of minority members in state legislatures. Republican women have become so common they rarely make news anymore, but it’s worth noting the governors of Arizona and Oklahoma, many House members, and of course the mother of all mama grizzlies, Sarah Palin herself.

This doesn’t mean that women or minority voters will suddenly start casting ballots for Republicans at the same rate that white men do. But the trend is important in two ways. Many Tea Party and other conservative voters backed these candidates in primaries based on their principles, not their physical characteristics, in most cases preferring them to white-male candidates such as Charlie Crist and Paul Thurmond. Enough voting like that could force even skeptics to revise their image of conservatives as bigots. And there are now many GOP officeholders who have both an interest in, and a greater ability to reach out to, minority voters. That is probably one of the reasons Democrats have gone to such lengths to block the rise of Republicans like Rubio.

To be sure, the 2010 vote will have a dramatic effect on U.S. policy in the next two years. But let’s not forget: The political effects will last much longer than that.

– Gerard Alexander is associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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