The decision by Michigan’s Republican regime to speedily enact and sign historic laws that diminish the power of unions – in a state that once pioneered the power of unions – vividly illustrates the importance of state legislative elections. Let that be a lesson to those of us in the press corps who often pay scant attention to those elections.
And let it be a reminder to Democrats that, as giddy as they may feel about the 2012 presidential results, and about their party’s gains in the U.S Senate, the reality is far more sobering. Thanks to the 2010 midterm elections, the GOP is still thriving at the state level. Witness the political bomb that was just detonated in Michigan.
On election day, the federal races typically dominate the coverage; even in years when a presidential contest isn’t topping the ticket, Senate and House candidates get the brunt of the scrutiny. You typically need to turn to an inside newspaper page, or scroll deep into an online story, to find out whether the Democrats or the Republicans notched gains or losses in the competition for seats in the state chambers. And that’s a shame, because so many of our cutting-edge issues are fought in those chambers. They often get resolved there as well, because state legislatures – especially when they’re run by the same party as the governor – are frequently far less gridlocked than their counterparts in Washington.
The press scrutiny of the 2010 midterms was a case in point. We focused heavily on the big hit suffered by President Obama, as Republicans scored huge gains on Capital Hill; far less ink was devoted to the arguably bigger story. Republicans clobbered the Democrats at the state level. Prior to the ’10 election, the GOP enjoyed full control (both legislative chambers and the governor’s office) in only nine states; after the ’10 election, the GOP controlled 21 states. And if you tallied all the state legislative seats nationwide, the GOP total was the party’s largest since 1928.
One of key ’10 states was Michigan. Prior to the balloting, Democrats held the state House by a 20-seat margin; but on election night, Republicans captured the state House by a 16-seat margin. Plus, Republican Rick Snyder rode the wave into the governor’s chair. And thus the seeds were sown for the current assault on organized labor.
Snyder recently insisted that a right-to-work law – a typically southern red-state measure that allows workers to forego union dues – would be too “divisive” for Michigan. But yesterday he signed two such bills, suddenly hailing it as an exemplar of “workplace fairness and equality,” after they were hustled through the Republican-dominated legislature. There’s an old saying that state governments are America’s “laboratories of democracy,” but these bills were fast-tracked without normal committee scrutiny, without public hearing, and without the traditional public unput period – all potential violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act. Some democracy.
But that’s what happens when one party focuses heavily on state legislative races – as the GOP did in 2010, flipping the Michigan House – and the other party does not.
Perhaps even an energized Democratic party would have been thwarted by the ’10 conservative wave in Michigan and elsewhere. But let it be recorded that the GOP was far more ginned up, and far better financed, for those state races. The Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington GOP group, pumped $30 million into the races (buoyed by hefty donations from the usual suspects, including the Koch Brothers) and it devoted outsize resources to Michigan. Nationwide, the RSLC outspent its Democratic counterpart by roughly three to one. Nationwide, the Republican Governors Association (another player in state races) outspent the Democratic Governors Association by two to one.
The results speak for themselves. Democrats have been forced to fight rearguard actions state by state, on everything from voting rights and women’s health to immigration reform and public education spending. Michigan’s new anti-union law – in a pioneering union state, no less – is merely part of this pattern. The GOP may be gloomy about the federal election results this autumn, but its agenda is alive and well below the Washington radar. Democrats would be wise to vie more effectively at the state level, and the rest of us would do well to pay more attention.
Speaking of voting rights:
It’s always refreshing when Republicans drop the pretense that their state-by-state “reforms” of voting laws are designed to combat ballot fraud. This was exposed as a blatant lie during the summer, when GOP lawyers in Pennsylvania admitted in a sworn affadavit that they had no evidence of voter impersonation fraud – which had supposedly been the rationale for passage of the state’s new photo-ID requirement.
Anyway, at a Pew-sponsored forum on Monday, Republican campaign consultant Scott Tranter uttered this gem:
“A lot of us are campaign officials – or campaign professionals – and we want to do everything we can to help our side. Sometimes we think that’s voter ID, sometimes we think that’s longer lines – whatever it may be.”
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