With only control of the Colorado house and senate and the governorship of Alaska still unconfirmed at this writing, the full scope of Republican gains in state governments across the country is now evident. Since yesterday, dozens of close races have been called and the West Virginia senate, which had been tied, flipped to the GOP thanks to a party-switcher. Going into the 2014 elections, Republicans were the majority in 57 partisan legislative chambers and the Democrats in 41 (Nebraska’s legislature is nonpartisan and unicameral, so I’ll exclude it from the following analysis). The GOP controlled both legislative chambers in 27 states, with Democrats controlling both chambers in 17 states and five legislatures split between the parties, including New York and Washington where supposedly Democratic state senates were actually controlled by coalitions of Republicans and dissident Dems. Throw the governors into the mix, and this is what we had before Tuesday: 23 states fully under Republican governance, 13 states fully under Democratic governance, and the remaining 13 states in some kind of divided status.
Let’s assume that, as current trends suggest, the Colorado senate has gone Republican, the Colorado house has stayed Democratic, and independent Bill Walker has ousted Republican Alaska governor Sean Parnell. That yields the following net changes:
‐Partisan majorities in legislative chambers: 68 Republican (+11), 30 Democratic (-11)
‐Both chambers in actual partisan control: 30 Republican (+3), 11 Democratic (-6), 8 split (+3)
‐Both chambers and governor controlled by same party: 23 Republican (+0), 7 Democratic (-6), 19 divided (+6)
Describing just shifts in partisan control understates the magnitude of the GOP wave in the states, however, because it ignores the fact that more often than not, state legislatures already under Republican control got more firmly Republican and legislatures previously under Democratic control got less firmly Democratic. Tim Storey, who analyzes legislative elections for the National Conference of State Legislatures, reports that Republicans nationwide appear to have netted as many as 375 seats, giving them something like 56 percent of the 7,383 legislative seats in the country. You have to go back to the 1920s to find such a level of Republican strength in state capitals.
Because Congress and the national government are so important, we often have a tendency to interpret electoral results in legislatures from a Washington-centric perspective, as if they matter primarily for redrawing congressional districts or, as some activists fondly desire, calling constitutional conventions. For conservatives, that’s far too cramped a way of thinking about it. Control of governorships and legislatures means a real ability to make public policy that affects the daily lives of Americans — to promote job creation and income growth through tax relief and deregulation, to improve education through school choice and other education reforms, to modernize the nation’s infrastructure without breaking the bank, and to advance a variety of other worthy causes. As states make different choices about these issues and produce different results, that gives national policymakers real information about such questions as how to foster healthier economies, improve student achievement, and promote self-sufficiency over dependency. State governments also produce much of the next generation of national policymakers — the representatives, senators, and presidential candidates.
The 2014 legislative results will allow many more Republicans to serve as house speakers, senate leaders, and committee chairman, gaining critical experience for possible future careers in federal politics. It gives the GOP more chambers with which to advance economic and social legislation. Even if a bill goes to a Democratic governor for a veto, that’s useful to define issues and expose squishes. In many cases, however, newly Republican legislatures will be able to enact conservative reforms with the cooperation or acquiescence of such governors, who are first and foremost political animals. As for state Democrats, their ability to legislate liberal policies has just taken a nose dive. Only seven state governments are fully blue at this point.
These are, of course, just opportunities for Republicans. They could certainly squander them on pointless crusades, poorly crafted policies, or disastrous infighting. They could sink into arrogance and corruption. Or they could flinch when the liberal media, left-wing pressure groups, and the other usual suspects come after them. Still, it’s better to have an opportunity to fail than no chance to succeed.