The GOP takeover in the states

Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

With hefty majorities in their state legislatures, Republican governors will now have the opportunity to show what they can do if they are in charge - a precursor to the debate that will take place nationally in the 2012 presidential campaign when Republicans will be asking for full authority in Washington.

The first challenge many will face is a deep hole in their budgets caused by the recession. Republicans in Congress ran on promises to cut federal spending, but they will have only limited power to work their will. Republican governors will have significantly more power to do what they want.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie already has become a hero to many Republicans for his tough approach to state spending and battles against public employee unions - and with a Democratic legislature to contend with. Many new Republican governors will try to do the same, aided by strong legislative support.

Republican governors, with the backing of their legislatures, could throw up roadblocks to implementation of Obama's health-care law. Already there are grumblings from the states that the implementation deadlines are unrealistic, suggesting there will be resistance to meeting them. That is in addition to state-sponsored lawsuits trying to overturn the law.

What will play out in the states over the next two years will not be one model of Republican governance but many.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a possible GOP presidential candidate, has an education reform agenda to push in his new legislature to go along with the fiscal and economic policies he has put in place already. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has a Democratic legislature, is another prospective Republican presidential candidate who can use his legislative session to burnish his national credentials.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who says he is not running for president, has become a national figure with his crusade to challenge the powers of the federal government and return power to the states.

Ohio Gov.-elect John Kasich, a former House Budget Committee chairman, has an opportunity to show whether Republican policies will be more effective in creating jobs in a hard-hit Rust Belt state. Nearby in Michigan, Gov.-elect Rick Snyder, a businessman and moderate Republican, will offer his model for boosting one of the nation's hardest-hit economies. Another businessman, Rick Scott, is the newly elected Republican governor of Florida, a state hurt by the foreclosure crisis.

If Republicans in the states prove successful, the GOP's presidential nominee will have a compelling story to put before the voters in 2012. If they don't, they will be asked why, just as Obama and the Democrats were this month. That's good reason to pay as much attention to what's happening in the states as to the battles inside the Beltway.

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