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In The States, Republicans Have Never Been So Dominant — Or Vulnerable

Aug 5, 2017
Originally published on August 8, 2017 6:24 pm

When West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice stood next to President Trump during a campaign rally in Huntington, W.Va., on Thursday to announce that he was switching parties and becoming a Republican, it was a historic moment for the GOP.

Justice's decision gives Republicans control of 34 governorships — tying a record set nearly a century ago. Democrats hold just 15 governorships. (Alaska's governor is an independent). Republicans now hold so-called trifectas — control of a governor's mansion and both chambers of a state legislature — in 26 states (including Nebraska's non-partisan unicameral legislature which is effectively controlled by Republicans). Democrats have just six such trifectas. That's in addition to Republicans' complete control of the federal government.

And unlike their D.C. cousins, Republicans in statehouses across the country can point to conservative policy accomplishments this year, such as adding new restrictions on abortion, expanding gun rights, weakening private and public sector labor unions and expanding school voucher programs.

But a constellation of forces means that this level of Republican dominance in the states is brittle and in danger of shattering.

Large playing field, unpopular president

Perhaps the biggest reason Republicans are vulnerable is because of the extent of their past successes at the state level. Republicans are defending 27 of the 38 governors' seats that are up election between now and November 2018. And 14 of those 27 seats will be vacant — including large, important states such as Florida, Michigan and Ohio — mostly due to term limits.

While it's too early to tell how many races will be truly competitive, it's likely Republicans will face plenty of headwinds. State-level elections have become increasingly nationalized over the past two decades and the president's popularity can have a major impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout — especially a challenge with a president as polarizing and unpopular as President Trump currently is.

Infighting and overreach

Years in power have also created problems for state-level Republicans. In Kansas, an overly ambitious plan to cut taxes orchestrated by Gov. Sam Brownback (who's been nominated to a State Department post in the Trump administration) starved the state of funds for its schools and other services. Kansas Republicans wound up bitterly divided over the issue and earlier this year, a moderate faction sided with Democrats to override Brownback's veto and rescind the tax cuts.

Similarly, a series of tax cuts in oil-dependent Oklahoma left the state poorly prepared for a downturn in energy prices. Republican lawmakers were forced to swallow their opposition and vote for tax hikes in order to keep the state solvent.

With Democrats all but vanquished in several Republican-dominated states, intra-Republican disputes have taken center stage. In Texas, Republicans are divided between a business-friendly faction that prioritizes low taxes and less regulation and social conservatives eager to pass the most conservative legislation possible, such as a bill limiting transgender access to bathrooms. Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott was running campaign-style ads against fellow Republicans in the legislature over a dispute about economic development funds.

A combination of voters unhappy with the governing party's track record and internal party rifts that will play out in primary elections, sometimes leading to extreme or unqualified candidates, could weigh down Republican candidates up and down the ballot over the next year.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announces that he is switching parties to become a Republican as President Trump listens on at a campaign rally Thursday in Huntington, W.Va.
Justin Merriman / Getty Images

The maps and the courts

After the Republican wave election in 2010, victorious GOP state lawmakers took advantage of that year's decennial redistricting to further entrench their power, especially in swing states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Republican-drawn legislative and congressional district maps in North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Alabama are already in federal court because of concerns about racial gerrymandering and North Carolina has already been ordered to redraw some of its districts.

But an even greater existential threat to Republican dominance at the state level comes from one of the most important Supreme Court cases of this fall's docket. Arguments in Gill vs. Whitford could determine whether Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin were allowed to take partisanship into account when drawing legislative boundaries. The Republican maps in Wisconsin were so formidably drawn that the GOP won 60 of 99 seats in the Wisconsin House even as Democrats drew more votes statewide in 2012 and 2014.

While both parties use partisan gerrymandering to their advantage, Republicans' dominance at the state level means the GOP has far more on the line from a Supreme Court decision.

Can Democrats capitalize?

The flip side of Republicans' dominance is the weakness of state-level Democrats. Going into the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats had full control of 17 states compared to Republicans' 10 states. Democrats acknowledge they've let their state parties wither and need to focus on rebuilding.

As former President Barack Obama told NPR's Steve Inskeep after the 2016 election, "you've got a situation where there are not only entire states but also big chunks of states where, if we're not showing up, if we're not in there making an argument, then we're going to lose."

But Democrats have a long way to go. A much touted effort to recruit candidates for this year's Virginia's House of Delegates elections has substantially increased the number of districts Democrats are competing in from 39 in 2015 to 67 today — but that still leaves 33 districts where the party was unable to find a candidate to run.

Still, while Democrats haven't won any of the special U.S. House elections so far this year, they've significantly improved their margins even in deeply Republican districts — suggesting that Democratic voters are highly motivated.

More evidence of enthusiasm comes from the latest Quinnipiac poll that has 52 percent of voters saying they prefer that Democrats control Congress compared to 38 percent for Republicans. Given the GOP edge in congressional and state legislative districts, Democrats will probably need popular sentiment to sway far in their favor if they are to have a hope of regaining power.

It's still 15 months until Election Day 2018 and plenty can still happen. But based on the landscape, it's hard to see how Republicans can maintain their current level of dominance.

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If you're going by the numbers, these are boom times for Republicans. They control the White House and Congress. And just as importantly, they dominate state governments. That grip got a bit stronger last week when West Virginia Governor Jim Justice got up on stage next to President Trump and said this.


JIM JUSTICE: Today I'll tell you as West Virginians, I can't help you anymore being a Democrat governor.


JUSTICE: So tomorrow I will be changing my registration to Republican.


CORNISH: With that, Republicans now have 34 governorships. In 26 of those states, Republicans control the legislature, too. NPR's state politics editor, Brett Neely, is here to talk more about it. Hey there, Brett.


CORNISH: So how did we get here? Because this is, like, a historic moment basically for modern politics and Republicans.

NEELY: Yeah, it is historic. Republicans haven't controlled this many governor seats since 1922. And we really got here because of 2010, the midterm elections in 2010, when Republicans did so well in Congress. They also recaptured a lot of governor's mansions. They had a lot of help obviously from outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity that focused on these lower-profile races. The other thing that happened is that Democrats lost track of the ball and didn't invest as much in the state level.

CORNISH: It's a lot of power. What have they done with it? Can you give us some examples?

NEELY: We've seen a lot of tax cuts, for example, very aggressive efforts to reduce the influence of labor unions, the expansion of gun rights, stricter voter ID laws, restrictions on abortion - a lot of the things that Republicans talk about as being very important to them.

CORNISH: And yet they are still facing a big challenge legally because of the actions they took drawing congressional districts, right?

NEELY: Yeah. And it's not just congressional districts. Republicans won really significant gains in 2010, and 2011 was when redistricting happened. And because Republicans were in control of so many places, they were very aggressive about drawing lines in their favor. Now, this fall, there's going to be a really, really important case in the Supreme Court.

It's a case out of Wisconsin about how far state lawmakers can go in drawing those lines and whether a partisan state lawmaker can really draw a very partisan line to minimize the other party's influence in the legislature. But it would also apply to congressional districts. And because Republicans have benefited so much from drawing these lines, if the Supreme Court says that partisan gerrymandering can't be as aggressive as it's been, it's going to really have a big impact on their state influence.

CORNISH: Right. We're talking about elections then. So looking ahead, how much ground do Republicans have to defend?

NEELY: Well, in a lot of ways they're a victim of their own success, right? Between now and November 2018, Republicans have to defend 27 of the 38 governor's seats that are going to be up for election. And it's going to include some really large and important states like Florida and Michigan and Ohio. And, you know, one of the things that's also a challenge is that unified government does not always mean a harmonious government. You know, you look at a place like Kansas where Republicans eventually revolted against Governor Sam Brownback's tax cut plans and they voted to raise taxes earlier this year.

So there could also be some very challenging primary fights for Republicans. But it is very early in the cycle. We don't know how things are always going to turn out. And, you know, there are some instances where Republicans are doing surprisingly well. They've got a series of governors in the Northeast in what are considered pretty Democratic-leaning states. And those governors are all quite popular and don't seem to be in any danger of losing their job so far.

CORNISH: What about Democrats? What's their plan going forward?

NEELY: I mean, I think that they're really betting that President Trump is going to remain unpopular. And they're really betting that their voters are going to be highly motivated to come out...

CORNISH: So you - the local races will be national.

NEELY: Everything will be nationalized. That's really part of their plan. They're actively raising a lot of money. President Obama is very involved in that effort. But there's a lot of work to do. And I'll give you one example from Virginia, which is going to have legislative elections later this year. Democrats have been really proud of their efforts to recruit candidates to run for the Statehouse there. In 2015, they only had candidates in 39 of the state's 100 districts. So this year they've got 67 candidates - great. You know, that's a big improvement over where they were before. But boy, that means that there are still 33 seats where they can't even find a candidate to run. That just shows you how far Democrats have to go.

CORNISH: That's NPR's state politics editor, Brett Neely. Brett, thanks for explaining it.

NEELY: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "SMOKE & MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.