The Republican Party’s big state-level advantage, in one chart

February 4, 2013

Republicans in Washington are coping with effects of an election cycle in which they failed to win the presidency or control of the Senate.

But beyond the Beltway, things aren't so bad for the GOP. Just look at the following chart from the Pew Center on the States, which illustrates how much power the Republican Party currently wields at the level of state governance, where many major policies that have burst onto the national radar began:

(Give the graphic a moment -- it takes a few seconds to load.)


As the graphic shows, 30 states have Republican governors, and in all but five of those (Iowa, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico and Nevada) with the GOP also controls the state legislature. (Nebraska has a unicameral, non-partisan legislature.)

What's more, Republican state legislative majorities in 14 states (including two with Democratic governors, Arkansas and Missouri) are strong enough to override gubernatorial vetoes.

As The Fix's Aaron Blake recently wrote, exercising control over both legislative chambers plus the governorship of big swing states and blue-leaning states allowed Republicans to draw favorable lines there at both the congressional and state legislative district level. That will make it harder for Democrats to win back seats in coming elections.

Another major reason why party breakdown at the state government level matters: It's where a lot of big stuff happens.

Developments in state government don't attract nearly as much attention — at least not nationally — as what happens in Washington. But many of the policies that have recently triggered big national debates didn't begin at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The battle between organized labor and conservatives, for example, has largely played out at the state level in recent years. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) used GOP control of his state legislature to pass a law curbing collective bargaining for most public employees in 2011. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) more recently signed a "right-to-work" law in his state, where Republicans also control the legislature.

Gay marriage is another issue over which states have been shaping the national debate, with some states where Democratic legislatures and governors are in place spearheading measures legalizing same-sex marriage.

In 2011, lawmakers in New York passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage that received a lot of national attention. This past election cycle, voters in Washington and Maryland upheld laws legalizing same-sex marriage that Democratic-controlled legislatures and governors had signed off on. Voters in Maine also approved a gay marriage law, while Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

So, it's clear that both parties have used power at the state level to advance legislative priorities. And despite being limited by the outcome of the 2012 election at the federal level, the GOP gains from the 2010 wave are still being felt at the state level, illustrating that the true, lasting legacy of that election is in state politics.

Of course, the flip side of so much success is the task of defending gains down the road. Republicans are playing a lot of defense across the gubernatorial map in 2014. In other words, while favorable state district lines will help Republicans down the road, they won't mean as much without the winning governor's races, too.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Aaron Blake · February 4, 2013