Most of the midterm attention seems to be on control of the United States Senate, with some attention on key gubernatorial races like Florida and Wisconsin, and with a smidgen of notion to the size of the Republican House majority after 2014. Most pundits see Republicans padding that current majority by some seats.
There is another level to the 2014 midterm that passes almost completely under the political radar: control of state legislatures. Twenty years ago, in the 1994 midterms, Republicans made dramatic gains in state legislatures – a vital part of our constitutional system, which had been utterly dominated by Democrats for a century.
How weak had Republicans been in state legislatures?
Consider these data. After the 1980 Reagan landslide, Democrats held 74 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers. After the 1984 Reagan landslide, in which Democrats carried only one state, Democrats held 67 out of the 98 chambers. After George H. Bush beat Dukakis in 1988, Democrats held 72 out of 98 chambers. Even when Republicans were winning the White House easily, Democrats held overwhelming strength in state legislatures.
This really changed when Newt Gingrich nationalized the midterm election with his Contract With America, which swept Republicans into secondary statewide elective offices, like lieutenant governor and state attorney general, as well as state legislative seats. After the 1994 midterms, Republicans held 46 of the 98 state legislative chambers; they held the same number after Clinton was re-elected in 1996. This strength actually grew after the 1998 midterms, when Republicans were losing House seats, and grew again after the 2000 presidential election.
That was a tipping point. Democrats had long, and rather boastfully, gerrymandered congressional districts so that the number of Democrats in the House was significantly larger than the number of votes Democrat candidates in House races received. In the reapportionment and redistricting after the 2000 census, Republicans, for the first time in a century, could stop Democrat gerrymandering and, in fact, gerrymander themselves.
Just as importantly, Republicans could now stop Democrat gerrymandering of state legislative districts and could, in fact, draw the district lines in state legislatures to maximize the number of seats Republicans would win. This strategy proved so resilient that even after the 2008 election – after two straight elections of big Democrat gains – Democrats held only 62 of the state legislative chambers, five fewer than they held after the 1984 Reagan landslide.
Hidden in the congressional gains of the 2010 Republican landslide, the GOP controlled 59 state legislative chambers, far more than at any time in modern history, and as a direct consequence of that, Republican governors like Scott Walker were able to push through laws to limit public employee unions, reduce voter fraud, and protect the sanctity of life, among other conservative reforms.
Because 2010, like 2000, was the election to choose state legislatures who would draw congressional and state legislative districts for the next decade, this Republican midterm gain was particularly important. So even when Obama was re-elected in 2012, the congressional seats that had been drawn after the census largely by Republican state legislators elected a comfortable (albeit smaller) House Republican majority, and the state legislative districts drawn largely by Republicans gave the GOP 56 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers – a slight drop, but far more than Republicans had ever held in the heyday of Reagan or Eisenhower, both of whom won two landslide presidential elections.
After the 2014 midterm, which looks increasingly like a Republican wave election that will bring victory to Republicans in state elections as well as Senate and House elections, that 56 state legislative chambers could grow – perhaps a lot. The Democrat majority makes for just one vote in the Colorado Senate, Iowa Senate, Nevada Senate, and Washington Senate. In other chambers, the Democrat majority could easily be swept away by a modest Republican tide: Colorado House, Maine Senate, Minnesota House, Minnesota Senate, Nevada House, New Mexico Senate, New Mexico House, New York Senate, Oregon House, Oregon Senate, Washington House, and West Virginia House.
Depending upon the outcome of gubernatorial races, this could put Republicans in a position to actually control state government in sates like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Iowa. These legislatures could pass and Republican governors sign new laws that rein in the political levies of public employee unions or create new and more effective ways to investigate and prosecute voter fraud.
No one is going to be talking about state legislative races on the Tuesday evening of this midterm, but the impact on politics and policies could be huge.