Due to the nature of the media, much of the focus of election coverage focuses on the names at the top of the ballot. Presidential elections make headlines, and thus ratings for media outlets; Congressional and the gubernatorial results form the byline; and the various social, legislative bills put before citizens on the ballot, make up most of the “also of note” commentary. Few broadcast outlets, be they national or local, provide much focus at all on the election results of state legislatures. These state legislature elections are generally deemed irrelevant to any outside political “wonkville”, and they are deemed boring, unsexy, and in a comparative sense, pointless. They may be all of the above, for varying reasons, to a wide swath of the American public, but they are not pointless.
The focus of last week’s 2014 midterm election coverage, contained the headline that the Grand Old Party (GOP) (the Republicans) took eight seats away from Democrats to secure a majority of the Senate for the next two years. The below the masthead stories, detailed the GOP’s win of three previously Democrat governor seats, and the twelve seats the GOP won in the House of Representatives to increase their majority in those offices. The larger, and untold story, writes Marc Theissen of the Washington Post, may be the actual “tsunami” that occurred at the state level:
(The 2014 election) has given Republicans greater control of state governments than at any time in almost a century.”
In addition to the election victories that occurred in what President Barack H. Obama called “Republican friendly ground”, Republicans took elections for governor from Democrats in the “unfriendly to Republican” grounds of Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, and Arkansas. Resulting in a total of 31 out of 50 governorships, “three short of the 1920 record number of the 34 governorships held by Republicans in 1920s.”
This near-record number of Republican governors will soon be assisted by a near-record number of state legislatures, soon to take office at a level also not seen since 1920, to enact the Governors’ agendas.
When Obama first took office, in 2008, Republicans held just 3,220 state legislative seats. After Tuesday’s vote, the number stands at 4,111 — a net gain of nearly 900 seats on Obama’s watch. Thanks to the 291 state legislative seats Republicans added in 61 chambers across the country last week, there are now more Republican state legislators than at any time since 1920.
“Put another way: In 2008, the GOP controlled just 36 (of the 99) state legislative chambers. It soon will control 69 — and voters have given the GOP total control of state government in nearly half the country. In 2008, Republicans held both the legislature and governors’ mansion in just eight states. Today, the number is 24. By contrast, Democrats now control both the legislature and governor’s office in just seven states, down from 15 before the 2014 election. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that is the lowest number of states Democrats have controlled since (Abraham Lincoln was first elected in) 1860.”
This near-total collapse of power in these state legislatures has to be disconcerting to the Democrat National Committee (DNC), but the trending nature of the Gallup Poll findings, comparing the then-largely Democrat federal government and the largely Republican state governments, might be even more troubling to them.
In this September 4-7, 2014 Gallup Poll, 19% of the respondents claimed that they have faith that the federal government will do the right thing “just about always or most of the time”. When the poll asked respondents to gauge the federal government’s ability to resolve international problems, 43% of them stated that they have a “great deal, or fair amount of confidence” in the federal government to properly resolve them. When the poll asked the respondents to rate their confidence in the federal government to resolve domestic problems, the poll numbers are even worse 40%. All three of these generic polls, that ask about the overall performance of the federal government, received a general lack of confidence that this particular poll has not seen since May 1972, the Watergate era of President Richard M. Nixon. When the question specifically asks how much confidence the American public has in the Executive Branch’s ability to solve problems, 43% respondents respond positively, a dip from the 61% vote of confidence President Barack H. Obama received in his first year in office, and one point higher than the worst rating (42%) President George W. Bush received at his lowest point. As has been widely reported, the Legislative Branch of the federal government fared worse, receiving a 28% vote of confidence in the September 4-7, 2014 Gallup Poll, also the lowest mark since May 1972. If these votes of confidence, sent to the federal government, could be said to be trending downwards for Democrat leaders –with control of the Executive Branch and one half of the Legislative Branch— over the last six years, the trending vote of confidence for state level leadership –Governors and the state legislature— (largely Republican since 2008) has been trending upwards in the last six years, moving up 10 points from 52% in the September 13-16 2010 poll to 62% in the September 4-7 2014 poll.
“No one cares about state legislatures,” you might say. You might also stop reading any editorial or blog that focuses on such elections, and you might turn the channel on the television broadcast that switches its subject to talk of state elections “I don’t even know who my state legislator is,” is something most people might say. You might also think they’re boring and unsexy, a point made clear by the lack of attention even local broadcasts place on such elections, but as Theissen points out, they’re not pointless.
They’re not pointless, because state legislatures can have a profound effect upon their state, and their state’s politics, and this is particularly the case when they develop an agenda that effectively counters that of the federal government’s in the political concept known as federalism, but there is also the idea that winning legislative seats at the state level provides the victorious party a strong political bench.
Mark Theissen illustrates the idea of a political bench by using the analogy of the National Hockey League (NHL). In this analogy, the more high profile Republicans, in federal seats, are the NHL team, and the Republican Senators and Congressman in the various state legislatures are the minor league teams. In this analogy, writes Theissen, the recent “tsunami” style gains made in the state legislatures show that not only has the Republican Party “Drafted well for the past three seasons,” but that they also have “a deep bench of talented prospects” as a result.
Democrats, by contrast, have experienced what Politico recently called “the virtual wipeout of the Democratic talent pool across the country.” We see this talent deficit (most prominently) in the dearth of credible candidates (available) to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination — and it will only get worse as GOP state leaders use their growing monopoly on state power to build a record of conservative results.”
The final reason these under-the-radar, boring, and pointless elections at state levels could be regarded as vital to future national elections is in the message they use to win their local elections.
Republican leaders in the states have been successful while the national party has struggled because GOP governors are focused on reforms that are relevant to the daily lives of their citizens. Instead of fighting over fiscal cliffs, sequesters and debt limits, they are focused on improving education, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, caring for the poor, reducing dependency and creating jobs and opportunities for the unemployed. If Republicans in Washington want to cement their new majority, they should take a page from the GOP playbook in states and champion a positive, hopeful reform agenda.”
When the focus of any elections is directed at the “fighting” that Theissen describes, Democrats win. When national Republican candidates allow Democrats to keep the focus of an election on the “big” ideas that Democrats have largely controlled for six –and some say eight— years, with their ability to set the agenda in Washington, Democrats win. This advantageous platform allows Democrats to call Republicans the party of “No!” when they, the minority party, doesn’t acquiesce to the party in power’s agenda. It allows them to call Republicans partisan, and it allows them to keep Republicans on the defense. If these boring, unsexy, and pointless state legislature elections can teach national Republicans nothing else, it’s that while national Republicans shouldn’t give up “the fight”, they also shouldn’t allow themselves to be so distracted by it that they accidentally forget all these little ideas, that these “minor league” state legislators have used to reach the little people in their state for electoral victories.