The Republican wave beneath the Republican wave

     (<a href=Photo via ShutterStock) " title="ssoceanwavex1200" width="640" height="360"/>


    Consider these quotes: Democrat Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” Republican Karl Rove presciently said, “He who controls redistricting controls Congress.”

    Which is why we need to pay far more attention to state legislative elections – especially in the wake of what happened last Tuesday, when Republicans succeeded in historic fashion. The political press corps, headquartered in Washington, tends to focus most heavily on the races that determine balance of power in Washington (the fate of the Senate was the marquee story this year), but consider what just took place, under the radar, at the local level:

    The GOP picked up so many seats that it will soon control 68 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers – surpassing its previous record (64), which was set in 1920. Think about that one. The last time Republicans had this much clout outside Washington, movies were silent. They’ll have complete legislative control in 30 states (the Democrats, only 11). They’ll have complete governmental control – legislature plus governor – in 23 states (Democrats, only 7).

    Most importantly – and this is why these races are so crucial – Republicans have greatly enhanced their ability to craft a perpetually Republican House of Representatives. That was the party’s master plan all along, as evidenced by Karl Rove’s aforementioned March ’10 remark.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Legislatures in 44 states draw the congressional district boundaries. And the party in power typically draws the boundaries to maximize its own voters and disperse the opposition’s voters – which is why we get monstrosities like Pennsylvania’s 7th District, nicknamed “The Claw.” When the once-a-decade process took place in 2011, the GOP legislature in Harrisburg simply carved up the Philly suburbs to ensure a safe red sinecure. It did the same thing statewide, and the results were stellar. Even though Pennsylvanians in 2012 favored House Democratic candidates over House Republican candidates by an aggregate statewide margin of 83,000 votes, the GOP still wound up with 13 of the 18 House seats.

    That same pattern was replicated nationwide. Thanks to the 2010 tea-party wave – and assiduous Republican planning for those local races – newly GOP state legislatures had the muscle to draw the congressional boundaries to their liking, trumping the aggregate will of the voter. And when the dust cleared after the 2012 election, an organization called the Republican State Leadership Committee had something to crow about. Yeah, President Obama won re-election handily, said the RSLC, but look at how we kept the House:

    “Democratic candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives won 1.1 million more votes than their Republican opponents. But the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is a Republican and presides over a 33-seat House Republican majority during the (next) Congress” – thanks to the party’s local-takeover strategy, called REDMAP.

    By now, you may be asking yourself, “What the heck is the Republican State Leadership Committee?” My point exactly. The RSLC operates under the media radar, working to pick up state legislative chambers, plotting its moves far into the future., outhinking the characteristically flat-footed opposition. Way back in 2004, it started thinking about the 2010 races and the subsequent prospects for GOP-friendly boundary-drawing in 2011. And since 2004, it has raised twice as much money as its reactive Democratic counterpart.

    Republicans have long been better at the local game. I remember talking with some top GOPers, in the summer of 2000, about the Bush-Gore presidential race – but they took the conversation in a different direction. Tom Hofeller, a national party strategist, told me, “There is a war going on this year, very much under the radar, a war to control the U.S. Congress over the next decade. This is the great hidden election of 2000.” Tom Cole, the party’s chief of staff, told me, “Next to the presidential race, this is more important to us than any other elections in the country” – because state GOP legislators could redraw House boundaries in the party’s “self-interest.” (The GOP did well locally in 2000.)

    The upshot of all this – and a fresh reminder of why state legislative races are so critical – is that the GOP is well positioned to sustain its power in the U.S. House. Granted, the hapless Democrats helped swell the House GOP majority in the ’14 midterms. But thanks to the ’11 redistricting, to the crafting of gerrymandered safe red seats, Democrats are likely doomed to minority status in the next cycle, even if voters nationwide tilt strongly for Democratic candidates in 2016. Which means that even if Hillary Clinton gets elected, she’ll likely be stuck with a recalcitrant chamber – and new dysfunction.

    Perhaps the Democrats would be wise to prioritize the state chamber elections, well in advance of the next round of redistricting in 2021. Tip O’Neill was right when he said that all politics is local, but clearly the impact is national.



    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.


    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal