Back in what seems like the Pleistocene Epoch of political analysis — 2015 — Republicans and Democrats alike were marveling at how phenomenally successful the GOP had been at the nuts-and-bolts of building party organizations, recruiting candidates, raising money, and working with grassroots allies. That’s because it was widely understood that the White House wasn’t the only political prize to be won, that divided government matters, and that the most interesting developments in public policy in recent years have been taking place in state capitals, where Republicans wield more power than they have since the 1920s.
How times have changed. During the presidential primaries, Republicans with actual experience in enacting and implementing conservative ideas around the country were repeatedly trashed as lightweights, bureaucrats, or sellouts, while Donald Trump — who has spent most of his time in public life attacking Republicans from the Left — emerged with the nomination. Although many conservative activists and talk-show hosts talk a good game about federalism and the importance of distributed power, they maintain an unhealthy, non-conservative fixation with Washington. Trump (and other political grifters of various kinds) have benefitted enormously from the resulting mismatch between public perception and governmental reality.
Set aside the presidential race for a moment. There are many other consequential elections on the ballot. Many could go either way — for U.S. Senate and House, for governor and other statewide elective offices, for state legislatures and courts, and even for local offices and ballot referenda. Conservatives would do well to watch these races carefully, not just for signs of emerging national trends or personalities but also because these races will directly affect policy outcomes on key issues such as taxes, spending, school choice, property rights, economic regulation, and abortion. Continued gridlock is likely in Washington. Not so elsewhere.
As you do your homework, you will find Ballotpedia.org to be an excellent resource. Search and scroll to your heart’s content. In addition, please let me call attention to an arena of special importance to conservatives: state legislatures. Nearly every recent victory that people across our movement — from cultural conservatives to libertarians — have had occasion to celebrate began with courageous, skillful action by state lawmakers. These bodies also produce future candidates for statewide or congressional campaigns, and in most cases draw the maps that shape future battles for congressional and legislative control.
Right now, the GOP control 69 of 99 legislative chambers (including the Nebraska legislature, which is unicameral and officially nonpartisan but contains mostly Republicans). According to people I know who follow these matters closely, there are nine legislative chambers with a good chance of flipping this year. Seven might go from R to D: the Colorado senate, the Maine senate, the Nevada house and senate, the New Hampshire senate, the New Mexico house, and the New York senate. Two might go the other way: the Connecticut senate and the Kentucky house.
Ballotpedia has a broader list of legislative contests to watch in 2016. It includes the above as well as places where a late-breaking Democratic or Republican surge could flip some additional chambers, or where a minority party could gain enough ground in 2016 to make a serious play to flip a chamber in 2018 or 2020. These battlegrounds include both chambers in Iowa, Minnesota, and Washington; the houses in Colorado, Michigan, and New Hampshire; and the senates in New Mexico, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Obviously, there were already good reasons to be watching Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin closely this cycle. Now you have another.