Washington, as usual, is marveling at itself — focused on the impact of the GOP wave that has given Republicans control of the U.S. Senate and an expanded majority in the House.
But the real story is the GOP tsunami in the states that has given Republicans greater control of state governments than at any time in almost a century.
While President Obama has downplayed Tuesday’s Senate results, arguing that Democrats were fighting on GOP ground, Republicans also picked up governorships from Democrats in liberal strongholds like Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois, as well as in Arkansas. Result? The number of GOP governors has risen from 21 to 31 since Obama took office (32 if Gov. Sean Parnell holds on in Alaska) — just short of the all-time high of 34 Republican governors in the 1920s.
Voters have also given those governors Republican legislatures to enact their agendas. When Obama first took office, Republicans held just 3,220 state legislative seats. After Tuesday’s vote, the number stands at 4,111 — a net gain of nearly 900 seats on Obama’s watch. Thanks to the 291 state legislative seats Republicans added in 61 chambers across the country last week, there are now more Republican state legislators than at any time since 1920.
Put another way: In 2008, the GOP controlled just 36 state legislative chambers. It soon will control 69 — and voters have given the GOP total control of state government in nearly half the country. In 2008, Republicans held both the legislature and governors’ mansion in just eight states. Today, the number is 24. By contrast, Democrats now control both the legislature and governor’s office in just seven states, down from 15 before the 2014 election. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that is the lowest number of states Democrats have controlled since 1860.
This is more than an anti-Obama swing of the political pendulum. A conservative revolution has been taking place in the American heartland. And that revolution will have lasting consequences in a number of areas.
For one thing, while the Obama administration was turning Washington into a laboratory for a failed experiment in big government liberalism, Republicans have turned the states into laboratories for bold, successful conservative reforms. The results speak for themselves. After six years of Obama’s leadership, trust in the federal government is at an all-time low. Gallup recently found that while only 19 percent of Americans have confidence in the federal government to do the right thing. Meanwhile, after six years of growing Republican leadership in the states, 62 percent of Americans trust state government.
Second, the success of conservative reformers in the states has allowed the party to cultivate the national leaders of tomorrow. The Republican Party is like a pro hockey team that has been struggling at the NHL level but has drafted well for the past three seasons. As a result, the GOP now has a deep bench of talented prospects. Democrats, by contrast, have experienced what Politico recently called “the virtual wipeout of the Democratic talent pool across the country.” We see this talent deficit in the dearth of credible candidates to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination — and it will only get worse as GOP state leaders use their growing monopoly on state power to build a record of conservative results.
Third, the GOP success in the states provides a road map for national Republicans — one the new Republican-led Congress would be wise to heed. Republican leaders in the states have been successful while the national party has struggled because GOP governors are focused on reforms that are relevant to the daily lives of their citizens. Instead of fighting over fiscal cliffs, sequesters and debt limits, they are focused on improving education, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, caring for the poor, reducing dependency and creating jobs and opportunities for the unemployed. If Republicans in Washington want to cement their new majority, they should take a page from the GOP playbook in states and champion a positive, hopeful reform agenda.
With an electoral map favoring Democrats in 2016, the GOP’s Senate takeover could be short-lived. But in the states, Republicans have been making steady gains for three election cycles — and the effects will last for a generation.