Politics & Policy

How the States Turned Right

Republicans have a large field of serious contenders seeking their party’s presidential nomination. Democrats don’t. Why? The Clinton factor may be one reason. While Hillary may not thrill Birkenstock liberals in college towns or “Black Lives Matter” activists in big cities, her husband’s eight years in the White House during the relative peace and prosperity of the 1990s are a pleasant memory for Democratic voters, and these years produced an entire generation of party leaders who remain loyal to the Clinton political organization. Despite her manifest flaws as a candidate, there simply may not be enough political space for a viable challenger.

However, I’m more interested in the other frequently cited reason for the dissimilarity between the two presidential-primary fields: During the Obama years, Democrats have been decimated in congressional, state, and local elections, thus reducing the potential pool of political talent. This is true as far as it goes. But particularly in the states, it doesn’t go back far enough in time. Once the dominant force in state and local government, Democrats began to lose their hold on legislatures, governorships, judgeships, and a variety of other offices in the late 1980s. Indeed, two key developments in this process occurred 30 years ago, just as Ronald Reagan was beginning his second term as president. One concerned politics. The other concerned public policy. Far from being an inevitable consequence of impersonal social forces, the subsequent rise of the Right in the states reflected the hard work, strategic thinking, and innovative ideas of a group of people whose contributions remain largely unheralded or misunderstood.

 

A 1985 Summit on the States

The political part of the story begins in east Tennessee. If you drive down the Lamar Alexander Parkway about 30 miles south of Knoxville, you will find a resort called Blackberry Farm nestled up against the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a working farm and a family retreat. For a small group of Republican politicians and strategists who met there one weekend in July 1985, however, retreat was the furthest thing from their minds. Just six months earlier, Ronald Reagan had rollicked to reelection over Walter Mondale by winning 49 states. Republicans had gained 16 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and maintained their majority in the U.S. Senate. But below the federal level of government, the GOP remained firmly in the minority. Despite the impressive size of President Reagan’s reelection wave, Republicans gained just one state governorship in 1984, giving them 16 to the Democrats’ 34. In most states, Democrats had long enjoyed control of both legislative chambers, often by wide margins. Republicans won majorities in only eleven state legislatures in 1984, a decline from the 15 legislatures they had won in the middle of the initial Reagan victory four years earlier.

#related#The Republicans who convened at Blackberry Farm that sweltering summer were convinced that their party’s electoral successes at the top of the ticket could be parlayed into greater gains down the ballot. Some had already made such gains. The host of the gathering, Lamar Alexander, was into his second term as governor of Tennessee. He’d begun his political career by managing the 1970 campaign of Winfield Dunn, who became Tennessee’s first Republican governor in half a century. Alexander attempted to follow in Dunn’s footsteps in 1974 but was swamped by the post-Watergate Democratic tide. On his second try in 1978, he succeeded. Later, Lamar Alexander would run for president, serve as U.S. secretary of education and president of the University of Tennessee, and then enter the U.S. Senate.

Governor Alexander’s short guest list for the 1985 Blackberry Farm weekend included Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburg and New Hampshire governor John Sununu, respectively the chairman and vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Both would later join Alexander in the Bush 41 administration. The participants also included two GOP consultants, Bob Teeter and Doug Bailey, and three key members of the Conservative Opportunity Society in the U.S. House: Carroll Campbell (soon to become governor of South Carolina), Connie Mack (soon to become U.S. senator from Florida), and Newt Gingrich, who within a decade became the first Republican speaker of the House in two generations.

Two other Republican leaders were involved. One, House Minority Whip Trent Lott, helped plan the meeting but couldn’t attend because of a scheduling conflict. The other leader, one of Lott’s closest friends in the House, did attend the Blackberry Farm summit and played a key role in it, although his name won’t be as familiar to most readers. He was Jim Martin, a chemistry professor turned politician (and the subject of my just-published biography, Catalyst). Although just 50 years old and elected governor of North Carolina only the previous November, Jim Martin was actually the most experienced politician at the Blackberry Farm summit. His first electoral win, to the governing board of North Carolina’s most populous county, came in 1966. The other politicians in attendance had won their first victories in the 1970s or early 1980s. By the time Martin won the governor’s race in 1984, he had already spent 18 years in public office, including twelve years in Congress.

As a member of the first Republican-commission majority in his county and then a veteran of many battles on Capitol Hill, including the crafting of the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, Martin had been both a trailblazer and a bridge-builder. While he was a congressman with a conventionally conservative voting record during the 1970s and early 1980s, Martin had come to believe that the GOP needed a different message if it wanted to achieve success down the ballot in traditionally Democratic places. Republicans needed a plan “to make us more effective in governing while also making us more effective in politicking,” he said later. At Blackberry Farm, he used his experience to help bridge the gap between the state governors, who tended toward political pragmatism, and his former congressional colleagues, who led a conservative insurgency on Capitol Hill during the early 1980s. Jim Martin had a foot in each camp.

In addition to their shared partisan interest, Martin had much in common with two of the participants, John Sununu and Newt Gingrich. All three were former college professors. Sununu had a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had spent years as a professor and associate dean at Tufts University before beginning his political career in 1973 as a state legislator. Gingrich had a Ph.D. in education from Tulane and taught at West Georgia College for eight years before being elected to Congress (on his third try) in 1978. As for Martin, he had earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Princeton University and then returned to his undergraduate alma mater, Davidson College, in 1960 to teach. They were hardly the only intellectuals in the room. Bob Teeter, for example, was a Michigan State–trained sociologist and polling pioneer. And Doug Bailey had earned his Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University and then worked for Henry Kissinger at Harvard, a relationship that eventually led Bailey into Republican politics. (Two years after the Blackberry Farm meeting, Bailey would found The Hotline, one of the first daily political-briefing services in America.)

 

Opportunities down South

These were brainy, determined men. They included both establishment GOP figures such as Thornburg and conservative revolutionaries such as Gingrich. What brought them together was a shared belief that the Republican party could become the majority party in state government by developing an effective message, building a political and policy infrastructure at the state level, recruiting strong candidates, and broadening their donor base. Thornburg called their emerging strategy the “Reagan Revolution Stage 2.” In the coming months, as many of the Blackberry Farm participants focused on the GOP’s emerging opportunities in the old Confederacy and border states, another name presented itself: The Second Southern Strategy.

The first “Southern Strategy” project emerged in the 1960s from Republicans’ wish to break the Democrats’ electoral lock on the region. While Dwight Eisenhower and other GOP candidates had made some headway during the 1950s by targeting affluent or upwardly mobile voters in the South’s growing metropolitan areas, the Republican strategists of the 1960s sought to broaden the playing field by using the conservative views of rural and small-town whites on crime, civil rights, religion, and foreign policy to win split-ticket votes for Republican candidates for president and other offices. (One of the Republican National Committee operatives behind the 1960s Southern Strategy, Brad Hays, would later become Jim Martin’s political consultant.)

While the initial Southern Strategy employed wedge issues to detach voters from their longtime home in the Democratic party, that was insufficient to make the Republican party competitive down the ballot. The Second Southern Strategy of the 1980s and early 1990s sought to attract new voters to GOP campaigns for governorships, legislatures, and local offices by offering an appealing alternative to Democratic governance. It meant addressing their practical demands for better schools, better roads, and better economic opportunities. It wasn’t enough for GOP candidates to clutch the coattails of their presidential candidates. They needed a relevant, credible message of reformed and effective government. And they needed a realistic strategy for converting that message into electoral victories.

The strategy came into sharper focus within months of the Blackberry Farm meeting. Speaking at a Republican leadership conference in early 1986, Lamar Alexander challenged attendees to rethink their pitch to Southern voters. “Washington issues are tremendously important and so fascinating,” he said. “But when we get together, that’s all we talk about, and the Democratic governors are running down the street proposing programs to improve the schools, clean up the garbage, fix the roads, and make the children more healthy — and they get elected.”

Later that year, Martin and Alexander convened a new group, the Southern Republican Exchange. Its purpose was to give Republican legislators, local officials, candidates, and strategists an opportunity to compare notes not simply on political tactics but also on new ideas for addressing issues such as education, crime, and transportation. The formational meeting in August 1986 “was the politician’s nightmare: everyone we invited came,” quipped Alexander to veteran Washington Post reporter David Broder, who joined the 49 GOP activists at the Nashville gathering. Newt Gingrich was also there. He argued that conservative Republicans didn’t need to compromise their principles to win state and local races. They can promise “lean but strong government,” he said.

While Martin and Alexander focused their attention on cultivating new ideas and candidates to boost Republican fortunes in the South, other Blackberry Farm participants were hard at work elsewhere. For example, in 1986, Gingrich decided to assume control of a political-action committee, GOPAC, that former Delaware governor Pete du Pont had initially founded in 1978 to train Republican candidates for state and local office. Gingrich dramatically increased the budget and national impact of GOPAC, beginning with the 1986 election cycle. As for Thornburg and Sununu, the chairman and vice-chairman of the Republican Governors Association, they spent much of 1985 and early 1986 recruiting a strong field of GOP candidates and raising a huge war chest to support them. Martin, Alexander, Gingrich, Thornburg, and Sununu reassured the candidates, donors, and activists they were cultivating that although the political party of a reelected president tended to sustain major losses in his second midterm election — the so-called six-year itch — Republicans running for state office could effectively decouple themselves from the national trend with an aggressive, well-funded campaign on issues of local concern.

 

Down-Ballot GOP Victories, in 1986, Defying the Trend

They were proven right. Although President Reagan’s party lost seats in the U.S. House and its majority in the U.S. Senate in 1986, it enjoyed spectacular successes down the ballot. Republicans achieved a net gain of eight state governorships, including victories by Bill Clements in Texas, Bob Martinez in Florida, Henry Bellmon in Oklahoma, Guy Hunt in Alabama, and Blackberry Farm participant Carroll Campbell in South Carolina. The down-ballot victories in 1986 were highly unusual for a president’s party — which had lost an average of six governorships in midterm elections since World War II — and surprised nearly everyone in the national political establishment. The main exception was David Broder, who had reported on the Blackberry Farm summit in 1985 and interviewed Lamar Alexander, Jim Martin, and other key figures in the run-up to the 1986 elections. The summit’s significance was more broadly understood after the elections, with National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. labeling it “a historic way station in Republican politics in the South” on his TV show Firing Line.

Today, 30 years after the Blackberry Farm summit, Republicans are the dominant party in state capitals, with 65 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers, 31 governorships, and 24 states where they hold both the executive and legislative branches.

Over the next few years, Southern Republican Exchange meetings grew larger and larger. Gingrich’s GOPAC expanded, too. More of the party’s energy and financial resources were focused on state and local politics. Other states began to emulate the party-building strategies pioneered in Tennessee and North Carolina. The breakout finally came in 1994, when Republicans won a majority of the nation’s governorships and a plurality of the nation’s state legislatures. Over the next 16 years, partisan fortunes waxed and waned, but the Democrats never regained their former dominance. Then, in 2010, the bottom dropped out for them. Today, 30 years after the Blackberry Farm summit, Republicans are the dominant party in state capitals, with 65 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers, 31 governorships, and 24 states where they hold both the executive and legislative branches (Democrats hold both in only seven).

A Revolution of Ideas

The second part of the story of the Right’s rise in state capitals isn’t about politics. In fact, many of the individuals involved weren’t partisan Republicans. They were libertarians, independents, even Democrats. Their passion wasn’t recruiting and training candidates, building get-out-the-vote organizations to wage the political ground war, or raising money to finance the political air war. Instead, they wanted to engage in the war of ideas. Observing the growing importance of think tanks and alternative media outlets in the nation’s capital during the first years of the Reagan Revolution, they sought to replicate these institutions in the states, where the focus would be not on the national economy or foreign policy but on precisely the kind of bread-and-butter issues that Lamar Alexander, Jim Martin, and the other Blackberry Farm participants were talking about: schools, roads, and other state and local services.

#related#There had already been some free-market institutions created outside of Washington and New York City. California hosted the Reason Foundation and the Pacific Research Institute (and was the original home of the Cato Institute). The National Center for Policy Analysis had just opened in Dallas. Perhaps because of geography, these groups tended to be less fixated on federal issues. Still, state policy wasn’t their primary focus.

A Washington-based group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, did prioritize state issues, but it primarily served its legislative members and didn’t maintain a constant presence in state capitals across the country. Some conservative and libertarian activists had recognized the potential value of such a presence early on. A couple of state-oriented think tanks with a free-market emphasis even sprang up in the 1970s. Alas, they didn’t last. It wasn’t until 1984 that the idea really took hold. That was when a group of Chicago-area libertarians led by businessman Dave Padden created a new organization called the Heartland Institute and recruited Joe Bast, then finishing his senior year at the University of Chicago, to run the new organization.

Conservative and libertarian activists in other states took notice of Heartland’s founding. In 1985, they compared notes, traveled to Washington to visit the Heritage Foundation and Cato, and began recruiting donors and staff. That year, John Andrews and other like-minded Coloradans founded the Independence Institute. The following year, businessman and Heritage Foundation trustee Tom Roe created the South Carolina Policy Council. In 1987, Michigan’s Mackinac Center, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation, and Florida’s James Madison Institute followed suit. By the end of the decade, they had been joined by the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, the John Locke Foundation (JLF) in North Carolina, the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts, the Alabama Family Alliance (now called the Alabama Policy Institute), and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, among others.

These think tanks were independently created, largely funded by donors within their respective states, and often reflected the diversity inherent in the broader movement — some were libertarian, others traditionalist, still others affiliated with groups such as the Family Research Council. Nevertheless, they emphasized what they had in common and soon began meeting regularly as the Madison Group to discuss operational and policy issues. In 1992, the meetings took formal shape as the State Policy Network (SPN), a kind of trade association for the emerging movement.

During the ensuing two decades, the movement continued to broaden and deepen. Today, the Right runs some 65 think tanks devoted to state and local affairs. As the Left began to perceive a threat to its traditional dominance of policy development in state capitals, it initially responded, in the 1990s, by creating its own new wave of state-based think tanks. When that proved insufficient — or at least required more patience than leftists possessed — they turned to demonizing SPN members as elements of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Ironically, it was actually the left-wing think tanks that were often funded predominantly by out-of-state foundations and operating as little more than transmitters of talking points and policy papers produced out of Washington and New York. The anti-SPN attacks themselves were largely recycled, with only the names changed to indict the innocent.

#share#Contrary to the claims of leftist conspiracy theorists, the two movements I am describing — the political one to elect more Republicans in down-ballot races and the institutional one to create right-of-center think tanks and media outlets in the states — were independently conceived and not coordinated by some cabal of GOP billionaires. They proved to be complementary efforts, yes, and there were indeed some individuals who involved themselves in both. Independent Institute founder John Andrews eventually became president of the Colorado Senate. Tom Roe was a key leader of the South Carolina Republican Party and an adviser to President Ronald Reagan. My friend Art Pope served in North Carolina governor Jim Martin’s administration and the state legislature before founding the John Locke Foundation, then later served in the legislature again as well as becoming the state budget director under current governor Pat McCrory. Sitting governors with strong ties to SPN members include Indiana’s Mike Pence (one of the founders of Indiana Policy Review), Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker (former executive director of the Pioneer Institute), Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts (founder of the Platte Institute), and Maryland’s Larry Hogan (a former board member of the Maryland Public Policy Institute).

But other state think-tank founders and leaders have tended to eschew electoral politics — the organizations themselves are nonpartisan, of course — and more than a few have found themselves at odds with longtime Republican politicians whose votes failed to match their rhetoric. During most of my tenure at JLF, Democrats controlled North Carolina’s legislative and executive branches. We criticized them when they raised taxes and encroached on the freedoms of North Carolinians, to be sure, but we also worked ceaselessly to find common ground on other issues. Think tanks aren’t vehicles for political campaigns, and they tend to founder when partisan operatives try to run them as such. Their credibility depends on their independence.

Republicans have lost the popular vote for president in five of the past six elections. But the party as a whole is stronger than it has been since the 1920s, on Capitol Hill and in states and localities across the country. So is the conservative movement.

Still, the truth of the matter is that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to embrace the conservative movement’s policy agenda of lower taxes, less government, and more choice and competition in the delivery of services such as education and health care. As the GOP gained a foothold, and then some, in states where it hadn’t previously been a factor, conservative think tanks found more opportunities to advance their long-sought policy reforms. At the same time, new Republicans governors, legislators, mayors, and other officeholders wouldn’t have had as extensive a policy agenda to enact — and would have been less likely to stick with it over time — if there hadn’t been strong, innovative, and effective think tanks and other free-market groups in state capitals.

The practical results are easy to see. Parents have more educational choices. In many jurisdictions, households and businesses are keeping more of their own incomes while facing fewer and simpler regulations. Privately owned and operated road-capacity and other infrastructure, once little more than theoretical constructs in think-tank policy reports, are now increasingly common. States really have become true laboratories of democracy, although the lab results would probably have both surprised and dismayed the originator of the phrase, left-leaning Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis.

Republicans have lost the popular vote for president in five of the past six elections. But the party as a whole is stronger than it has been since the 1920s, on Capitol Hill and in states and localities across the country. So is the conservative movement. It’s worth taking a moment to credit those individuals who had the vision to foresee these outcomes 30 years ago — and the perseverance to make them a reality.

John Hood — John Hood is president of the John William Pope Foundation, a Raleigh-based grantmaker that supports public policy organizations, educational institutions, arts and cultural programs, and humanitarian relief in North Carolina ...

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