The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP attains domination — at least for a few weeks

Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court on Oct. 6 concluded the longest nomination process since Clarence Thomas. Here’s how it happened. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Republicans will face a difficult 2018 midterm election in about one month’s time. But on its eve, the GOP secured its greatest amount of political power and leverage since at least the Great Depression.

The new, clear-cut 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court replaces a more nominal 5-4 court, in which Republican appointee Anthony M. Kennedy served as a swing vote and sometimes sided with the court’s more liberal justices. Things can always change, but Kavanaugh is expected to be a much more reliable vote for conservative issues.

Assuming the court is more tilted toward the GOP going forward, that delivers the GOP the last vestige of power in Washington that had thus far eluded it. While justices are technically nonpartisan, experts say this is shaping up to be the first reliably conservative Supreme Court since at least the New Deal era more than 75 years ago. By some measures, the court was already more conservative than it was then — at least before high-profile decisions legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide and upholding Obamacare — and it’s likely to be even more so now.

In a lot of ways, though, the Supreme Court is just catching up to the legislative and executive branches, both in Washington and at the state level.

Republicans control 33 out of 50 governor’s seats, which is just one shy of the record set briefly last year. That happened after West Virginia’s Jim Justice switched to the GOP but before Republicans lost in New Jersey. Before the last few years, the GOP had never held more than 32 seats.

The GOP also holds complete control of the governor’s seat and the state legislature in 25 states (compared to eight for Democrats). That’s also just one off the record, set briefly last year for the same reasons as above. Before this decade, the GOP had never held more than two dozen.

The GOP controlled 4,104 out of 7,383 state legislative seats as of July, which was just a few dozen seats off its record, also set in recent years.

In Washington, the GOP’s House majority currently includes 235 seats, but it stood at 241 before some election-year resignations. That was just five seats off the post-World War II high of 246, set in the late 1940s and matched early this decade.

Republicans' narrow 51-49 Senate majority is not, of course, near a record. But when you combine it with the GOP’s control of the House and the presidency, it gave the GOP unified control of policymaking in Washington for just the fourth Congress since the Great Depression.

And that’s the point here. Any one of these numbers may not be a record, but the GOP has not had such a favorable overall picture, across all these levers of power at the same time since at least the 1930 election, when the Depression swept Democrats into power. At the end of the 1920s, Republicans controlled the presidency, 267 House seats, 56 Senate seats (out of 96 overall at the time) and 29 out of 48 governorships.

Evaluating the Supreme Court around that time, of course, is more difficult, given the parties weren’t so polarized and ideological scores for justices only go back so far. So it’s possible a Supreme Court that could reliably rule in Republicans' favor these days could give the GOP even more universal control than it had back then.

That power is likely to be significantly curtailed come next month — extremely likely in the House, if not necessarily in the Senate. But for now, the GOP’s control of American government doesn’t have an obvious precedent.