“Republican gains are massive,” gloated conservative activist Erick Erickson on the blog Red State, the day after the Nov. 2 U.S. mid-term elections. He wasn’t talking primarily about Washington. The Republicans had mixed results in congressional elections, winning control of the House of Representatives but not the Senate. But the party’s performance was almost flawless at the state level: before Nov. 2, Democrats controlled the vast majority of state legislatures, and now most of them are in Republican hands. While the party won’t be able to do much in Congress, with President Barack Obama poised to veto its legislation, its new-found power in the states will enable the GOP to do many of the things it has been trying to do for years—and that could also pave the way for more Republican gains in the House and even the presidency in 2012.
A big year for a party at the national level affects races further down on the ballot; the Democrats picked up many state legislative seats in their own mid-term blowout in 2006. But this year’s Republican sweep, which by some estimates gained the GOP as many as 700 state-level seats, came at the best possible time. That’s because in 2011, U.S. states will redraw congressional districts based on census information. And state legislatures, along with governors, usually have a big say in how those maps are drawn.
Naturally, they try to draw up districts that maximize their parties’ chances of winning. That’s why conservative Texas sent an inordinate number of Democratic congressmen to Washington until Republicans took over the state legislature in 2002 (and pushed through a controversial redistricting scheme that indirectly led to a jail sentence for its mastermind, representative Tom DeLay). Ed Kilgore, a writer for the website The Democratic Strategist, pointed out that the Grand Old Party won more House seats in 2010 than its share of the popular vote would imply, and that was because of Republican-friendly maps that were drawn up by legislatures in states like Texas and Florida. “The advantage they obtained during the last round of redistricting endured to the end,” he said.
Now there may be an even bigger wave, because the GOP is emerging with new majorities in several states, including some, like North Carolina, where the legislatures had been Democratic since the 1870s. Texas—set to gain several congressional seats due to population growth—went from a close Democratic-Republican split to a 2-1 GOP majority in its legislature along with a Republican governor, meaning that Democrats will have no power to influence where new seats are placed. “Without some say over the process in 2011,” the Washington Post noted, “Democrats may not be able to fully capitalize on the vast growth in the Hispanic population,” with minorities instead packed into so-called “majority-minority” districts.
None of this means that the Republicans are guaranteed a permanent lock on the House of Representatives; in 2006, Democrats took many seats that had originally been drawn to favour Republicans, and this year, the Republicans did the same for many supposedly “safe” Democratic seats. And some states have imposed restrictions on gerrymandering, no matter who’s running the state: according to the St. Petersburg Times, Florida voters recently passed a state constitutional amendment ordering the legislature to “create districts that don’t favour incumbents or a political party.”
But state elections don’t only matter for congressional elections; they also matter for the presidency. In swing states, the governor can help campaign for his or her party’s candidate, and party control can make a difference in a close election: both parties remember the 2000 recount in Florida, where Republican control of the state (starting with Jeb Bush as governor) was seen as giving an advantage to George W. Bush.
That’s why the Democrats fought especially hard for legislative control in the states Obama needs to win in 2012. Ted Strickland, the Democrat who was running for re-election as governor of Ohio, said during the campaign, “I do think that Ohio can be viewed as a firewall for the president’s re-election.” Then he lost, and control of his state House flipped from the Democrats to the Republicans. If Americans think state results only matter at the state level, they should think again; the winners in Ohio, or Texas, or any other state, could affect who runs the country.