Inauguration Day 2013 was a moment of jubilation for conservatives. After four years of lackluster economic growth and a series of personal and policy mistakes, the incumbent chief executive, a history-making Democrat, was replaced by a conservative with an attractive policy agenda and a skillful campaign team. In a concise, hopeful inaugural address, the newly elected Republican leader of the executive branch promised to focus the administration’s attention and resources on job creation and economic growth in the short run, while setting the stage for long-term solutions to the government’s fiscal woes.
I’m describing the inauguration of Pat McCrory, North Carolina’s first Republican governor in 20 years. His election to replace retiring one-term Democrat Bev Perdue, the state’s first female governor, was one of the few bright spots for the GOP last November, so McCrory got more national attention than the incoming governor of the nation’s tenth-largest state would normally have received.
In general, however, Republican success in state and local politics is an underreported story. It extends far beyond the Tar Heel State. The post-2012 talk of conservatism’s electoral weakness and policy failures is disconnected from the personal experiences of many politicians, journalists, analysts, and activists who work at the state and local levels. While grassroots conservatives were disappointed at the reelection of President Obama and Republican misfires in races for the U.S. Senate, they continue to enjoy unprecedented influence and success in state capitals — while local liberals feel alienated from the governments and institutions they long dominated.
Even after giving up some of their 2010 legislative gains thanks to Obama’s 2012 coattails, Republicans still control more state offices than they have in generations. They hold 30 of 50 state governorships and 58 of 98 partisan legislative chambers. The nonprofit news service Stateline reports that in 25 states, comprising 53 percent of the U.S. population, the GOP controls both the executive and the legislative branch. Only 13 states, with 30 percent of the U.S. population, have unified Democratic governments. In addition, Republicans are strongly represented in local government, albeit primarily at the county level rather than in the increasingly Democratic big cities. In some states, such as my native North Carolina, the GOP’s local success has no modern precedent: A majority of the state’s 100 county governments are now under Republican control, which hasn’t been the case since General Sherman’s army was camped outside Raleigh.
As it happens, the political transformation of North Carolina and other states in the formerly Democratic “Solid South” is a big part of the story. In the 2012 cycle, voters in the last state of the old Confederacy with a Democratic legislature — Arkansas — gave Republicans control of both chambers. In the broader South, only Kentucky’s house of representatives retains a Democratic majority. Elsewhere in the country, Democrats regained some legislatures they lost in the Republican-wave election of 2010, such as those in Minnesota and Maine. But the GOP retained its recent gains in other presidential-blue states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
The regional dynamic reveals much about the ideological effects of recent political trends. Partisan affiliation doesn’t always predict political views or voting behavior. In the past, there were significant numbers of center-left Republicans and center-right Democrats. Members of the latter group traditionally held many congressional, gubernatorial, and legislative seats in the South and Midwest. But the days of boll weevils and blue dogs are approaching dusk. Once southern and midwestern state electorates became more amenable to the Republican label for state and local offices, the two parties began to polarize by ideology. Individuals who might once have run and served in office as center-right Democrats have either become Republicans — usually moving rightward to win their primaries — or yielded to GOP candidates with even more reliable conservative inclinations. Both phenomena have red-shifted the ideological spectrum in state government.
Another way to think about these political trends is as a giant switcheroo. From 1968 to 1988, Republicans won popular-vote majorities in five of six presidential elections while Democrats were firmly ensconced as the majority party of state governments and the U.S. House. But from 1992 to 2012, Democrats have won popular-vote majorities in five of six presidential elections while Republicans have gained the advantage in House races and the states. (Control of the U.S. Senate hasn’t precisely tracked the other results.)