While elected officials in Washington have gotten little done over the past four years, Republicans in statehouses across the country have advanced a conservative agenda that includes privatizing social services, cutting taxes, undermining renewable energy, restricting access to abortion, dismantling public sector unions, and blocking Medicaid expansion.
"If there’s one truth of divided government," Betsy Woodruff wrote for Slate last week, "it’s that the most significant legislative action often happens on the state level instead of in gridlocked Washington. While the U.S. Congress has been bogged down in a morass, state legislatures with single-party rule have been hopping. In the last few years, for instance, the Republicans who control Texas’ legislature and governorship have passed bills banning abortion after 20 weeks, tightening regulations on abortion clinics, reducing the number of required standardized tests for students, running the table on tort reform, and requiring photo ID to vote."
In 2015, Republicans—and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which prepackages conservative bills for state legislators to champion in their home states—are poised to assume even more influence. Because on Election Day, the GOP is likely to make unprecedented state-level gains.
"Republicans have the opportunity to take control of a record number of state legislative chambers across the country this year, as Democrats play defense in unfavorable terrain," the Washington Post declared last week.
"Republicans, who hold a majority of U.S. governor’s offices and legislatures, see a path to expand their dominance to unprecedented levels in elections next week," Bloomberg echoed.
In fact, analysts predict that this year, the GOP stands to gain a "state legislature supermajority" that could further embolden lawmakers to advance conservative, ALEC-crafted legislation with little pushback. Today, Republicans control 59 of the 98 partisan chambers in 49 states (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan). The Republican Legislative Campaign Committee has set a goal of attaining 66 legislative chambers.
As of Tuesday morning, the Republican party apparatus itself appeared confident that they'd pick up at least six, or possibly as many as 10, chambers on November 4: "At the state legislative level, Republicans are positioned for a historic night, with modern highs in majorities controlled and total number of legislative seats held within reach, exceeding totals achieved in 2010," read a memo sent out by Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) political director Justin Richards. "This is largely through new female and diverse candidate recruitment, as well as through winning strategies in states and districts previously won by President Obama."
The RSLC estimated that on Tuesday the GOP will flip chambers in Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and West Virginia, while cementing or expanding their majorities in 16 other chambers currently held by Republicans. "Victories in these states help us expand the potential paths for a Republican nominee to build a new coalition to win 270 electoral votes in 2016 and beyond," Richards' memo declares.
In gubernatorial races—the outcomes of which clearly influence the ability of state legislatures to pass their agendas—the margins are slimmer than in legislative contests.
"The range of possible Election Day outcomes for gubernatorial races is broad—a net gain of nine or 10 seats for either party is possible," Governing reported last week. "However, if a strong national wave doesn't materialize and the contests are decided more or less on their own merits, than a net gain of one or two seats for the Democrats seems likeliest."
Writing at The Nation, John Nichols explained why "[t]he results from gubernatorial races will tell us a great deal about where the country is really at after the most expensive midterm election campaign in American history."
"Republican governors moved after the 2010 election to implement austerity policies that, while different from state to state, have included assaults on labor unions and funding for public education and public services," he wrote. "Those have not proved to be economically sound, or it turns out politically popular. How voters express their distaste for austerity in the states could send the clearest signal of the 2014 election cycle."
For political satirist John Oliver's irreverent take on the role of state legislatures, how they've been hijacked, and why paying attention to them is important, watch the clip below: