State politics can be volatile. Consider the case of Indiana. A year ago, embattled governor Mike Pence faced the prospect of a challenging rematch against the former speaker of the Indiana house, John Gregg, whom Pence had defeated by just 75,000 votes in 2012 to succeed popular Republican governor Mitch Daniels. Also a year ago, Daniels’s former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, Eric Holcomb, was planning a long-shot campaign to win the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Dan Coats, for whom Holcomb was then serving as chief of staff.
As the 2016 election cycle unfolded, Indiana politics went in an entirely different direction. Pence’s 2012 running mate, Lieutenant Governor Sue Ellspermann, resigned to take a college presidency. Pence picked Holcomb as Indiana’s new lieutenant governor. A few months later, Donald Trump picked Pence as his running mate. On July 26, state Republicans selected Holcomb to replace Pence as their gubernatorial nominee. He began the fall campaign as an underdog against John Gregg, just as the Trump-Pence ticket faced long odds for the White House and as the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate, Representative Todd Young, faced an uphill battle against the former Indiana senator and governor Evan Bayh.
But the Democrats all faded at the end. Mike Pence is now the vice president–elect of the United States. Eric Holcomb is the governor-elect of Indiana. Todd Young is now the senator-elect. And Indiana’s status as one of the nation’s leading incubators of state-level conservative reforms is secure. This isn’t just a fascinating political tale. It exemplifies a broader trend, encompassing both partisan politics and policy success, in which conservatism is becoming the governing philosophy of most states across the country.
Holcomb had never served in elective office, although he’d spent much of his life working for candidates and officeholders in Indiana and Washington, D.C. During his brief sprint to victory in the governor’s race, most Hoosiers had little opportunity to get to know him. What they did know was that Holcomb was likely to continue the fiscal and economic policies of his predecessors. That proved to be a popular idea.
From the inauguration of Mitch Daniels in early 2005 to the last months of the Pence administration, Indiana’s economy grew by an inflation-adjusted average of 1.1 percent a year, outpacing all of its neighbors. During his eight years as governor, Daniels and the Indiana legislature slashed state payrolls, placed new limits on state expenditures, cut taxes, enacted right-to-work laws, and created a school-voucher program. During his four years, Pence followed up on these achievements by working with lawmakers to cut personal and corporate income taxes, eliminate death taxes, block local governments from foisting living-wage laws on employers, and expand the state’s charter schools and voucher program. Indiana now ranks second in the nation in educational freedom, according to the Cato Institute.
Indiana is only one of a number of states — including Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida — where dramatic gains in conservative policy and highly competitive politics go hand in hand. Republicans have more power in states today than they’ve had at any time since the 1920s. At this writing, the GOP has 33 governors, 31 lieutenant governors, 29 state attorneys general, 31 secretaries of state, and functional control of 67 legislative chambers, with 30 controlled by Democrats and the other two tied or still pending.
If you compare these results with those of the presidential and Senate races, you quickly see that Republicans aren’t just winning down-ballot races in consistently red states. They’ve captured statewide offices or control of legislative chambers in places such as Minnesota, Illinois, New Mexico, Colorado, Maryland, and Massachusetts. It’s the Democrats whose strength is disproportionately concentrated in just a few blue strongholds. In fact, in half the states, the GOP has a governor and full legislative control of both state governing bodies. Democrats have such a trifecta in only six states
Republicans have certainly surfed favorable national waves in the states in such years as 1994, 2010, 2014, and now 2016. But that’s far from the whole story. Democrats have had their own wave years, most recently in 2006 and 2008. Across these political oscillations, Republicans have simply recruited stronger candidates, built better party structures, raised more money, and outmaneuvered their Democratic counterparts. The result is clear.
At the same time, conservatives across the states have done a better job than liberals at putting together grassroots organizations, effective think tanks, alternative media and messaging outfits, and a set of ideas that are both transformational and practical. In conservatively governed states, taxes are lower and structured in ways that are less injurious to investment and entrepreneurship. Regulatory codes are less rigid and counterproductive. Citizens have more choices in education and health care. Entitlements such as cash assistance and unemployment insurance cost less and are less likely to ensnare people in long-term dependency.
These policy gains initially followed conservatives’ political successes. Now the effects of these policy gains are fueling more political successes in a virtuous circle, as voters respond to new jobs, income growth, and other tangible benefits by rewarding the politicians who authored the policies that brought those benefits.
The story is a little more complicated when it comes to social issues. Grassroots Republicans have made real progress, both in policy and in public opinion, on the issue of abortion, but controversies about gay and lesbian rights damaged Pence during his gubernatorial term and explain much of the difficulty North Carolina governor Pat McCrory experienced in his 2016 reelection bid.
Still, Republican politics and conservative governance have enjoyed tremendous successes over the past decade. With the election of a new Republican president alongside a Republican-controlled Congress, a new wave of accomplishments might be on the horizon. Some of the thorniest issues facing state leaders during the Obama years — such as the faltering health-insurance exchanges and costly Medicaid expansions associated with the Affordable Care Act — are about to get easier, assuming that Donald Trump follows through on his promise to decentralize power and that he works with Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional leaders on health care, transportation, and welfare reform.
As newly elected Missouri governor Eric Greitens leads his state to join others in adopting right-to-work laws, he and like-minded state leaders won’t be stymied by a national administration seeking to subvert the trend toward worker freedom, particularly with regard to the public-employee unions that have blocked conservative fiscal, regulatory, and education reforms for decades. And as conservatively governed states move to loosen regulatory restrictions on job creators, their work will be welcomed rather than obstructed by the federal alphabet-soup agencies.
Trump is not consistently conservative, and his populist followers are now ensconced within the Republican coalition. No matter how the tensions between the GOP’s presidential party and congressional party play out in D.C., what state conservative leaders need from the Trump administration in most cases (Obamacare being the obvious counterexample) is just to stay out of the way. These leaders need a restoration of federalism, a proper balance of federal and state powers and responsibilities. Does Trump have a strong and consistent view about federalism? I have my doubts. But I know Mike Pence does. And that may very well be all that is required.
– Mr. Hood is the president of the John William Pope Foundation, a North Carolina–based grant-giving organization, and the chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a state-policy think tank.