The Sunday Take
The GOP takeover in the states
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:18 PM
The intense focus on the coming struggles between President Obama and congressional Republicans obscures one of the most important and underreported results of the midterm elections: the GOP takeover in the states.
Republicans picked up at least 675 state legislative seats Nov. 2. As with the increases in the House, that gain is the biggest any party has made in state legislative seats since 1938 and is far larger than the GOP's tally in its 1994 landslide. Given the distribution of those gains, Republicans have the power to work their will in the states in ways they can't begin to think about doing in Washington.
Before the midterm elections, Democrats controlled 27 state legislatures outright. Republicans were in charge in 14 states, and eight states were split. (Nebraska, which has a single legislative chamber, is officially nonpartisan). Today, Republicans control 26 state legislatures, Democrats 17, and five have split control. In New York, officials are still determining who is in charge in the state Senate. Republicans control seven more legislatures outright than they did after 1994 and the most since 1952.
Add the results in the gubernatorial races, and the picture brightens even more for the Republicans. Before the midterms, Republicans controlled the governor's mansion and both legislative chambers in only nine states. Today it is 21 states. Democrats are in full command in 11 states, down from 16, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The changes came in some unlikely places. The conference says on its Web site that Alabama's legislature is in Republican hands for the first time since Reconstruction. Republicans hold the North Carolina Senate for the first time since 1870 and the Minnesota Senate for the first time ever.
The heavy losses Obama and the Democrats suffered in congressional races across the industrial heartland were matched or exceeded by losses in state legislative races. Republicans control legislatures in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Those states also now have Republican governors, except Minnesota, where the contest hasn't been called (although Democrat Mark Dayton is leading).
Democrats are still in charge in many states along the coasts, including California, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland. But Maine's legislature and governor's mansion flipped from Democrat to Republican. Where Democrats hold legislative power in the interior, it is often in places where they are far more conservative than the national party, such as Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia.
Republicans didn't take power in the states by incremental gains. The shifts in many places were truly dramatic. Republicans gained more than 100 seats in New Hampshire (which has the largest state House delegation at 400), just four years after a huge Democratic wave hit there.
In Michigan, the state House flipped from 64-42 Democratic to 63-47 Republican. In Minnesota, the state House went from 87-47 Democratic to 72-62 Republican. In Iowa, Republicans went from a 12-seat deficit in the state House to a 20-seat majority.
In Texas, Republicans will have at least 98 seats in the new state House, according to conference figures. That is a gain of at least 23. Texas Monthly's Paul Burka, who has followed state politics for more than three decades, called the results of the midterm elections in the Lone Star State "an annihilation bordering on political genocide." Democrats may not be a factor in state politics for a decade, he wrote in a column for the magazine's December edition.
The impact of this Republican tidal wave in the states will be felt in a variety of ways, starting with redistricting. In states where the power lies in the hands of legislators and governors, Republicans are in a strong position to draw congressional and legislative boundaries that will help lock in their gains for future elections. Republicans couldn't have timed their big victory any better.
The shifts in power also could have a significant effect on the 2012 presidential election. The electoral map that Obama was able to expand in 2008 will probably look more conventional in 2012, with some of the unlikely victories he engineered - Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia among them - more difficult to duplicate. But beyond that, Obama will be up against Republican governors in virtually all of the traditional battlegrounds, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.