Ethics & Public Policy Center

Don’t Overlook the State Elections

Published in City Journal on August 20, 2018


Most discussions of the midterms focus on federal races for the House and the Senate. But nearly all states hold legislative elections this year, too, and 37 states will elect governors this fall. If the negative trends apparent at the federal level hit Republicans here, too, the repercussions could be felt in the party for years.

One might think that state and federal races would have different outcomes. After all, presidents and Congress have little to do with the issues that normally dominate state-level campaigns. Nevertheless, outcomes at each level tend to run in similar directions and with roughly equivalent dimensions.

Take the GOP “wave” election of 2010. Republicans not only picked up a massive 63 House and six Senate seats; they also gained six governorships and 680 state legislative seats. Democrats celebrated similar numbers four years earlier. In 2006, a Democratic landslide saw that party gain 31 House seats, six Senate seats, six governorships, and over 300 state legislative seats. Individual races might diverge from the national trend, but a wave will sweep all before it, no matter what level the race is at.

This bodes ill for Republicans running for governor this year. In part because many of the Republicans who won in 2010 are now term-limited out of office, Republicans must defend 11 governor’s chairs without the benefit of a previously elected incumbent. RealClearPolitics rates three of those seats as leaning to the Democrats with another six rated as toss-ups, including the large states of Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. GOP incumbents are also running in seven other states that by polling or by prior voting behavior raise caution flags. RealClear rates one of them, Illinois’ Bruce Rauner, as a likely loser, while incumbents in Wisconsin (Scott Walker) and Arizona (Doug Ducey) are considered toss-ups. Should Republicans lose the four races they trail in and only split the toss-ups, that would mean a net loss of eight governorships, the largest any party has lost in one election since the GOP picked up 11 in the historic 1994 wave.

Hundreds of state legislative seats are also in play. There’s lots of debate over when a seat should be considered vulnerable, but in the current environment most observers would probably agree that any Republican-held seat carried by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump with less than 50 percent of the vote qualifies for that distinction. A staggering 477 GOP-held statehouse seats fit these criteria. Another 202 Republican-held state Senate seats also fit the bill, though not all will be up for election because many states stagger senatorial terms. Losses of that magnitude would easily be the largest Republican losses in decades.

It’s not all gloom and doom for Republicans. Many Democrats hold state legislative seats in districts carried by Trump. If Republicans target those members, the same partisan trends that endanger Republicans in marginal territory would endanger Democrats holding deep-red seats. That could offset many losses and keep the net GOP loss total down to a less dramatic number.

The Pennsylvania House is a good example of both trends at work. Republicans currently hold 121 seats in the 203-member chamber. Nineteen of these were in districts either carried by Clinton or won by Trump with under 50 percent of the vote. Taken in isolation, loss of these seats would cut the GOP majority to a mere one seat. But Democrats hold 14 House seats in districts that Trump carried with 50 percent or more. The GOP can retain control even in a worst-case scenario if they only pick up a few these blue dogs in red houses.

That doesn’t mean that some chambers wouldn’t flip. Nineteen of the 77 Republican members of the Minnesota state House are on the danger list: the GOP would lose control if it lost 11 of those seats. Republican control of both New Hampshire chambers and the Senate in New York, Connecticut, and Colorado should also be expected to be lost under these circumstances. Even Republican control of the Michigan House and the Florida House and Senate could fall if the Democratic wave is high enough. In both cases, more GOP seats are in the danger zone than the party can afford to lose and maintain power.

Losses of this magnitude would hit hardest in the Northeast and the Northwest. Nearly half, 12 of 25, of the California assembly delegation is endangered, while 19 of the Washington GOP’s 48 state House members are also threatened. But that pales in comparison to the Northeast. Fifty of Vermont’s 53 Republican state House members are endangered by this measure, as are 29 of Massachusetts’s 34 and 41 of Connecticut’s 71. A blue wave would devastate the GOP in many prosperous, coastal states.

It would also seriously diminish Republican dominance in high-income suburbs. Only 18 of the Georgia GOP’s 115 state House seats are endangered, but they’re in the once heavily Republican, high-income suburbs of Atlanta. The same is true in Illinois and even Texas. Indeed, some of the largest swings in the country away from Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential candidate, and toward Clinton four years later came in high-income areas of Houston and Dallas, such as Texas House District 134, which went from voting 56 percent for Romney to only 40 percent for Trump. Losses in places like these will have disproportionate impact on the national GOP: they are the very neighborhoods where many of the party’s largest donors live.

Big losses in 2018 would harm the party for years to come. All but two governors elected this year will hold office in 2021, when the decennial redistricting will occur. Republicans used their victories in 2010 to redraw congressional and legislative maps in their favor. This has entrenched many state majorities and added close to ten seats to the GOP’s total in the House of Representatives. If Republicans should lose the governorships in Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio all at once, the party can start to plan for reduced membership in the coming decade.

A blue wave might also increase the amount of GOP intra-party feuding. The loss of Republican representation in party donors’ backyards would likely intensify the simmering discontent felt in some quarters toward the president. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that all politics is local, and when an ancestrally Republican backyard turns Democratic, one should expect the dispossessed to fight back. That would mean more battles about the immigration and trade policies that run counter to these areas’ dispositions; it might also mean a serious challenger to Trump in the primaries.

It’s still too early to say with any precision what will happen in November. The trend is clearly in the Democrats’ favor, but there’s a big difference between normal midterm losses and a blue wave. If such a wave happens, the devastation will be felt across the country. From Hawaii to Maine, many Republicans will wake up to survey the wreckage of their party. Time will tell what that morning looks like.

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