The Corner

The Elections That Don’t Quite Count

The Washington Post reports:

Republicans have the opportunity to take control of a record number of state legislative chambers across the country this year, as Democrats play defense in unfavorable terrain.


The Republican landslide in 2010 and the subsequent redistricting process in 2012 gave the GOP control of a nearly unprecedented number of legislative chambers. Today, the party controls 59 of the 98 partisan chambers in 49 states, while Democrats control only 39 chambers (One legislature, Nebraska’s is officially nonpartisan).

. . .

State legislative elections, in which candidates raise little money and generate almost none of the attention given to more prominent contests for U.S. Senate or governor, are especially susceptible to national political trends. In 2010, Republicans picked up more than 700 seats, which amounted to nearly one in 10 legislative seats around the country.

This year, another legislative wave benefiting the GOP is certainly possible, perhaps even likely.

If Republicans have as a good a night on November 4th as it appears that they may, they will start next year with both chambers of the federal Congress and a majority of state legislatures and governorship. The Democratic party, meanwhile, would have . . . well, the presidency and the remainder of state assemblies and gubernatorial offices. How do we imagine that this will be seen? Will we regard Barack Obama as being the national exception — a blue figure in a sea of red? Or will we consider that Republicans have done well but that they still can’t seem to obtain the office that really matters: the one in the White House?

The Washington Post correctly billed its story as being “underreported.” This, I’d venture, should not be be surprising. As if intent on fulfilling the skeptical predictions of those who presume republics to contain the seeds of their own demise, many Americans really have come to see the office of the president as the only elected position that truly counts. Time after time, Republicans complaining about Obamacare have been instructed to “win an election,” as if the ascendancy of Scott Brown in 2009 and the wider “shellacking” in 2010 were both irrelevant. During budget negotiations, Congress is treated as if it has no claim to the power of the purse and should serve instead as a rubber stamp for the president’s spending plans. Likewise, on questions of war, the refrain is the same: If you want a different outcome, install your own commander-in-chief.

Given this tendency, I suspect that if the Republican party wins control of the Senate and most of the state legislatures, and keeps or increases its majority in the House, we will still hear “but Obama won” more frequently than is warranted. The form this will take will differ slightly, of course. From Democratic partisans, it will be explicit; in the media it will be implied. But on the big questions of the day, it will always be there, riding above all else.

To examine the structure of the Constitution is to recognize that this approach is little short of repudiation of how the country is set up. Greg Weiner noted recently, in the course of discussing the Halbig case:

The American regime features multiple majorities operating at multiple levels: federal and state; legislative, executive and judicial. They largely feature the same majorities—what Madison called, in the case of federalism, “common constituents”—reconstituting themselves from different perspectives.

As Steven Calabresi has noted, it is thus misleading to say the people spoke definitively and finally when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. It was not definitive, since majorities of the same people acting through the states declined to behave as anticipated on the issue of implementation. Nor was it final, since the U.S. House of Representatives flipped in an immediately subsequent election in which the law was prominently featured as a campaign issue.

If we arrive at a point at which Republicans run most of the countries legislatures — and outnumber Democrats in Washington’s representative body, too — wouldn’t it be fair to say that they “won,” too? We’ll see.

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