Forget Washington; the Real GOP Wave Happened Close to Home 

4 Comments | Category: General

The great Will Rogers observed that “Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.” I get this feeling whenever I watch Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or John Oliver’s This Week Tonight and compare the depressing realities of American politics that they astutely cover with the purposeless banalities offered up by just about every major candidate running for a seat in Congress this year.

Regardless of whether you are elated or deflated by the outcome of most of the year’s races, it is difficult to imagine that many people seriously found the 2014 election cycle to be uplifting or inspiring. In fact, just the opposite is true. Personally, I can’t recall a single election cycle that has reinforced our already high levels of cynicism regarding the political process and loathing towards politicians in general.

One certainty is that the newly minted Republican congressional majority is either going to have to put up or shut up. The days of sitting back heckling from the balcony like Statler and Waldorf—the two cranky old guys who jeered everyone on the Muppets—is over. No longer will the GOP have the luxury of opposing everything, proposing nothing, shutting down the government, and taking the nation to the brink of default if they want to hang onto their majorities in both chambers and take back the White House in 2016.

Beyond this angle of the story, the press and punditry have missed perhaps the most significant outcome of Tuesday’s elections. The fixation on the races for the U.S. Senate has been excessive and unnecessary since GOP Senate candidates mainly won seats in GOP states while Democrats chiefly won seats in Democratic states. The table that I created below demonstrates this point. Red shading indicates that Republicans won that particular race in 2008, 2012, or 2014 while blue shading indicates that Obama or whoever the Democratic senatorial nominee emerged victorious. The percentages reflect the GOP share of the vote in each race.

Nine of the 14 supposed “battleground” Senate races were held in states that the Republican presidential nominee captured by considerable margins in both 2008 and 2012. One of the other five—North Carolina—has long been friendly to the GOP. The two states where the Democrats held on—New Hampshire and Virginia—are states that Obama won twice and which have been trending Democrat in statewide races to begin with. In short, only the outcomes in Iowa and Colorado could be construed as being “big story” material since Obama had won both states twice and the seats flipped from Democratic to Republican control.


This begs the question: if the U.S. Senate turnover and the incoming Republican majorities in both federal legislative chambers are not the big stories, what exactly is?

Most significantly, Democrats exploded like a 1970s Ford Pinto in gubernatorial races that they should have won in states like Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts and got thumped in state legislative contests by historic margins. According to Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an analysis of the almost 6,000 state legislative races on the November ballot found that “Republicans ran the table, taking the majority in 11 legislative chambers previously held by Democrats.”

Based on current data, the GOP now controls 30 of 49 partisan state legislatures (Nebraska’s unicameral is non-partisan), 68 of 98 state legislative chambers, and 31 of 50 governorships. According to Storey, thanks to Tuesday’s elections, “Republicans will have a net gain of between 300 and 350 seats and control over 4,100 of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats. That is their highest number of legislators since 1920.” Not since Warren G. Harding’s “Return to Normalcy” campaign headed the national ticket has the GOP fared better at the state level.

Forget Washington. Forget Obama. Forget the incoming GOP majorities in the House and Senate. If you take Tip O’Neill’s axiom as seriously as I do, you are well aware that all politics is indeed local and that the types of decisions most likely to directly touch the daily lives of American citizens will happen closest to home.

The critical outcome of Tuesday’s voting is that come January, one party will hold a lopsided amount of power over the levers of government at the state level. While the Obama Democrats talked about hope and change, Republicans are now poised to deliver some version of it in a state capitol near you. The lesson is clear for the Democrats. They need to cease being a Washington-focused party and immediately get back to studying Tip. The alternative is to prepare for a lengthy stay in the political minority in a growing number of states.

Category: General

    4 Comments so far

  1. Tony West says:

    Well worked out & well said!

    If Democrats rely on their lower-income base to turn out, they had better grapple with effort of teaching their constituents that they live not just in a nation … but also in a state.

  2. Doug Keith says:

    Completely agree, and so do the Democrats – just saw that they’re raising money to do state by state initiaves. They’re a little late to the party, though!

  3. carol jenkins says:

    Do we need our own ALEC? Do we need to start teaching Civics in public schools? and how do we get the message put that states matter, when not 2 people out of 10 know who their state reps are?

  4. W. M. D. says:

    Nice to see your analytic shift to the states. I agree that is part of the big story. Two other parts: Evidently we’ve had the lowest turnout nationally since the 1940s. Interesting given the money spent on US Senate and some gubernatorial contests. Money does not generate turnout? Or: Money generates turnout and no one at all would have shown up without the spending? (Figuratively speaking….) So the impacts of current low turnout on legislative behaviors, as well as underlying attitudinal and material variables that may explain our lower than usual turnout warrant a close look. Second: I suspect we are seeing in part (maybe major part) impacts of “rotten districts” otherwise known as gerrymandered districts in many (not all) state legislative contests. Which states had both – GOP legislatures when post 2010 districts were drawn AND partisan districting processes? Nice little study here without too much difficulty I should think. Another little itch: Wonder what the total partisan vote was for GOP/DEM in House/Senate? Wouldn’t be amazed to see a larger DEM than GOP total vote given occasional outcomes like this in Congressional elections off and on over the past couple of decades. Odd little fact: Wake County, NC (in which Raleigh is located) just elected a county commission that is composed only of Democrats. The school board for the county is also now 100% Dem. This in a more completely GOP dominated state government than even in 2012-2014 (veto proof legislature, so Tea Party folks can (and has) stiff the GOP governor. Finally, my view is that “policy voting” occurs primarily among committed partisans. I wouldn’t look, therefore, for much broad electoral pressure on the House especially, to produce enactable policy. Outside of a mostly symbolic “bipartisan” enactment or three, I predict continued deadlock. On that cheery note — ciao!

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