Democrats gained full control of Virginia’s state government on Tuesday with new majorities in both state chambers — while ending full Republican control of Kentucky with Steve Beshear’s election to governor. That extends their gains from last year’s election, when Democrats began to reverse a decades-long period of Republican state gains.

Voters may expect their new legislatures and governors to dramatically change state policies and economies. After all, Beshear said he would save schools that were near extinction in some areas of the state while Gov. Matt Bevin, Beshear’s Republican opponent, accused him of supporting a government takeover of health care.

But how much can Democrats actually change?

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Recent history suggests that as state legislatures and governors shift from the control of one party to another, they can change state policy — but not as much as campaign commercials promise. Nationwide, governments tend to slowly expand in size and scope; Republicans have had a particularly difficult time transforming this liberal direction.

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That’s what I found in research for my new book, “Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States.” There I tracked the policy consequences of Republican electoral gains in the states from the 1990s to 2018. Even though Republicans dramatically expanded their control of state governments — from a low of three states in 1992 to a high of 26 states in 2018 — they were unable to shrink those state governments’ role in their citizens’ lives or move policy substantially rightward.

How I analyzed state policy change

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My goal was to analyze developments in states where Republicans made electoral gains. As one piece of that effort, I analyzed political history books covering 15 individual states and interviewed state legislative reporters in 18 states. According to these sources, most of these states’ policy debates tackled state-specific problems, dealing with issues as varied as failed energy projects and bailouts of large cities and school systems. Fewer were part of nationalized partisan policy trends.

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From these reports, I analyzed 92 major policy proposals in these states. Of these, more than two-thirds were focused on the size of that state’s government. Most concerned taxes, education, health care, the overall state budget or social welfare. Policymakers usually had to decide whether to raise taxes to spend on a new initiative or dedicate resources to one priority over another. That’s because, unlike the federal government, most state governments cannot constitutionally run deficits.

Authors of state histories identified just 27 percent of these debates as partisan battles between Republicans and Democrats; many others were broadly acceptable compromises. Even when one side won a debate over a large budget item, the state government often had to discuss it again a few years later. For instance, funding for local school districts was regularly revisited in several states — including Kentucky and Virginia.

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Often, Republican and Democratic governments pursued similar policies

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Governors of both parties usually propose new spending, not cuts. Most commonly, they propose spending more on education and economic development. Sometimes proposals become popular nationwide and are advanced by both Democratic and Republican governors. For instance, of the 36 new governors elected last year, 29 proposed expanding early-childhood education, regardless of party. And although in the 1980s and 1990s both red and blue states passed punitive criminal justice policies, that nationwide pattern has now reversed — and red and blue states are rescinding harsh minimum sentences.

What’s more, whenever a state came into money — through tobacco litigation, online sales taxes, oil spill reparations, stimulus funds, lotteries — both Republican- and Democratic-controlled state governments found ways to spend it. The flip side was also true: When state coffers shrunk because the population or the economy declined, both Republican- and Democratic-controlled governments cut back.

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Red states have passed increasingly conservative laws on some social issues, especially abortion and guns, but policy in areas like the environment and civil rights continued moving leftward — even though Republicans gained control of many more state governments over these years. Since Republican state gains came mostly under Democratic presidents, they also faced a federal government offering them funds if they would expand state government, as with the Affordable Care Act.

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Republican-led states often had to compromise their most extreme proposals

From the reporters, I learned that several Republican governors who had campaigned as deeply conservative tea party candidates moderated in office, once they had to worry about such things as reelection with statewide electorates, bond ratings, federal grant applications, court challenges to social welfare cuts and retaining the state’s employees. For instance, the 2018 wave of teacher protests and walkouts pushed several Republican-led states to reverse course on education and tax policy, as voters recognized that state spending cuts ended up hurting schools and outraging teachers. That included Kentucky, where Bevin’s approval rating dropped as the protests raged and teachers remained engaged; voters threw him out this year.

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Republicans also disproportionately came to power in states that already had relatively conservative policies, especially those in the South. That meant less government to cut and fewer liberal policies to overturn. Republicans succeeded in changing policies most often in states where their electoral incentives and policy instincts aligned, such as tightening voting rules or targeting (Democratically aligned) unions and trial lawyers, as in Wisconsin. But many Southern states already had conservative policies in these areas, leaving fewer easy political wins on the table.

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What to expect in 2020

When a different party takes over state government, the new government pursues and enacts different policies. But that doesn’t happen overnight. Changes usually happen slowly over decades of control, and only if the new policies are in sync with changed public opinion. And these policies don’t generally change the state’s economic growth or health.

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That means that new governors like Beshear and flipped legislatures like those in Virginia may have some success. Beshear can take executive action to restore voting rights; Virginia Democrats can work to pass gun restrictions. Both could rescind recent Medicaid work requirements. But they should also expect their attention to be hijacked by unexpected problems or economic trends specific to their state, which may disrupt efforts to push their partisan agendas. As they take office, expect to hear more about complicated and difficult choices and less about the transformations promised on the campaign trail.

Matt Grossmann (@mattgrossmann) is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University and author most recently of “Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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