2016 Election: GOP Opportunities

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 48: Republican Party
  • GOP triumph at state level
  •  Republicans can now make laws alone in 27 states
  •  Trump coattails seen in some races

Among the new prizes Republicans are set to exploit: Still more in an impressive multi-election string of victories in state legislatures. Just as the 2010 and 2014 elections resulted in a mass of new policy initiatives and reforms at the state level, so will the election of 2016, and in new states where Republicans have not recently had full control.

The Obama years came in kindly for Democrats at the state level. They are going out as a complete disaster. Look to the map of state legislative control from 2009, courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures:


Although NCSL hasn’t come out with its post-2016 election map, we’ve used their graphics to create this one:

capture-1This is a rather stark shift from blue to red. Democrats have gone from majorities in 62 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers right after Obama’s first win, to just 32 after his exit. They have been wiped out in the South, a stronghold for local Democratic elected officials right up until about 10 years ago.

A few technical notes on the maps: First, each state in the above maps is colored by the party majorities in each legislative chamber, not necessarily based on functional party control. Alaska’s and Washington’s each now have one chamber in which coalitions have given the minority party control. Also note that the unicameral Nebraska legislature, although nominally nonpartisan, is under Republican control and was in 2009.

As for total control of government, including both houses and the governor, Republicans will now have that in 25 states (including Nebraska), and can enact new laws over a Democratic governor’s veto in two others (North Carolina and West Virginia). Democrats will fully control the legislative process in only eight states, including Maryland and Massachusetts, where they can override a Republican governor’s veto.

2016 Balance Sheet: Let’s look at the changes from the last election, with Republican losses first. Amid a very strong early-vote performance by Harry Reid’s political machine, they lost control of both houses of Nevada’s legislature. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, however, remains in power through the next election.

They lost control of the New Mexico House, meaning Democrats will control both chambers of that legislature. But Republican Gov. Susana Martinez remains in office through the next election.

Republicans lost their party majority in the Washington State Senate, but will nonetheless maintain functional control of the chamber in a coalition with one Democrat.

Finally, Republicans did maintain their party majority in the Alaska House, but Democrats will control the chamber’s business in a coalition with a few Republican members.

As losses go, these were not too bad. Republicans lost total functional control of the elected branches only in one state, Nevada. In North Carolina, although they appear to have lost the governorship (pending recount), they now enjoy a veto-proof majority in the legislature and can still pass new laws without Democrats’ input. Moreover, they retain the ability to do this in West Virginia, despite the election of another Democratic governor. Democrats gained total functional control nowhere.

On the other side, Republicans managed to make important gains at the state level. This includes, on Trump’s coattails in rural regions, a surprise takeover the Minnesota state Senate. They now control both houses there, but Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton remains in power through the next election. They also gained the governorship of Vermont.

Republicans gained full functional control of four key states, two of which will be critical to future presidential runs: Missouri, New Hampshire, Iowa and Kentucky. There could be momentous policy consequences in all four, depending on how ambitious Republicans choose to be.

The Kentucky House had failed to flip to the GOP in 2014, in time to change the law to help Rand Paul run for Senate re-election and president simultaneously. But it flipped very hard this time, with Trump coattails and a number of party-switches from D to R. Republicans will occupy 64 out of its 100 seats.

With GOP control of the state House for the first time since 1920, the Bluegrass State, traditionally Democratic, has now completed the process of party realignment in its elections. The only step left is for voter registration to catch up. Republicans already outvoted Democrats in their respective gubernatorial primaries for the first time in 2015. They are on pace to overtake Democrats in registration within the next decade. Even if it is merely a formality, it will be a milestone for the state party.

In both Kentucky and Missouri, where Republicans took over the governorship, right-to-work laws are highly likely to be considered. This might also become a priority in New Hampshire, where Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass such a law with a veto-proof majority over a Democrat’s veto.

In Iowa, of all the states that saw big changes, Trump Republicanism seems like a clear winner from the 2016 election, just as unambiguously as it was in Ohio. Although the state’s Republicans had rejected Trump in their caucuses, he outperformed every Republican in recent memory with his resounding 10-point general election victory (yet another reminder of how different primary and general elections really are). No Republican had carried the state by such a wide margin since 1980.

The flipping of Iowa has received less notice than that of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, because it seemed superfluous to Trump’s 306-vote Electoral College victory. But if Iowa follows the path of neighboring Missouri in a more Republican direction it really will change the electoral map.

As a result, Republicans finally control the state Senate with at least 29 of 50 seats, and all three elected branches for the first time since 1998. The local press suggests that the legislature is likely to tighten abortion laws and liberalize gun laws. There is also talk of reforms to public employee pensions and collective bargaining, defunding of Planned Parenthood, and a clear shot at their own solution to longstanding state water issues.

The bigger picture, though, shows Republicans at heights in state governments that they hadn’t reached since the 1920s. It means the party will have a healthy bench of election-tested candidates who can run for higher offices in the future.