November 18th, 2016

Let’s take a local look: the state legislatures

One of the most interesting things this election cycle is something other than Donald Trump. Yes, you heard me—there is actually something other than Donald Trump in politics.

I’ve been saying for quite some time that, whatever happened with the presidency in the 2016 election, the composition of the Senate would be all-important to either president. If it was a Hillary presidency and a Democratic Senate, there would be a repeat of the heady days when Obamacare first went through. If a Trump presidency and Republican Senate occurred (an eventuality I thought much less likely, but still possible), the Republicans had a decent chance of enacting their policy dreams, whatever they might be. But any mixture in which president and Congress differed would spell more gridlock and a difficulty for either president to get his/her agenda accomplished, and would present that president with more and more temptation to do things by executive order, going around the legislature.

Well, we all know what happened: Republicans control both the presidency and the legislature.

But the state elections are especially interesting, as well. More slowly (it’s been happening for quite some time), the Republicans have pretty much taken over on the local level:


Republicans will control 4,170 state legislative seats after last week’s elections, while Democrats will control 3,129 seats in the nation’s 98 partisan legislative chambers. Republicans picked up a net gain of 46 seats in Tuesday’s elections, while Democrats lost 46 seats, according to the latest vote counts from The Associated Press.

Independents and members of minor parties hold 71 seats, including the entire Nebraska Senate, which is nonpartisan. Nearly two weeks after Election Day, about a dozen seats remain too close to call.

“Republicans have been working for this moment for years, to have a federal government with Republican majorities and now at the state level,” said David Avella, who heads GOPAC, a group that grooms young legislative candidates. “We have to deliver on breaking down barriers to job creation, we have to deliver on putting more money in people’s pockets through tax cuts and through higher wages.”

Remember that, because I don’t think the Democrats did: you have to show results, and good ones, or people will reject you. Reality still overcomes imagology, at least for now.

Note the final sentence here:

Since Obama took office, Republicans have captured control of 27 state legislative chambers Democrats held after the 2008 elections. The GOP now controls the most legislative seats it has held since the founding of the party.

That’s astounding. I’ve noticed that, during the bulk of his presidency when Obama has talked about his legacy, he hasn’t seemed to acknowledge this particular aspect of it. If he did, I missed it. But it seems as though it will be the focus of his immediate post-presidency energies.

Not the UN, but this:

The Democratic Party, “in close consultation with the White House,” has launched a new political group “which will coordinate campaign strategy, direct fundraising, organize ballot initiatives and put together legal challenges to state redistricting maps,” Politico reported Monday [a month ago]. Former Attorney General Eric Holder will chair the new group, named the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. And Obama himself, as Politico writes, has “identified the group … as the main focus of his political activity once he leaves office.” The group will focus on the “gubernatorial, state legislative and House races” in 2018 and 2020 that will determine the design of the next congressional redistricting maps.

Why would Obama concern himself with such seemingly small-fry politics? One reason could be tradition: Ex-presidents like to give their successors room to breathe, so hieing off to state-level battles is one way for Obama to remain active without meddling in the day-to-day grind of national politics. The other, more important reason is that control of state legislatures is in no way small-fry politics. By throwing his name behind the effort, Obama is trying to fix the colossal infrastructural damage his party sustained under his tenure: the Republican state-level domination—and thus congressional domination—achieved first in the midterms of 2010 and iced in 2014.

The article goes on to describe Obama as attributing these losses at the state level to the artifact of gerrymandering rather than any actual failing by Democratic leadership. He also attributes it—as he does almost every problem he has encountered with public opinion during his presidency—as a problem with messaging and communication. The Slate article I’m quoting is definitely Obama-friendly, but even the author seems to recognize what Obama does not (or at least does not publicly acknowledge), which is that it wasn’t all about districting or messaging:

[Obama’s] explanation is a self-flattering one: We were just so busy implementing perfect policies that we forgot to communicate them properly. One doubts that a more cleverly crafted party message—nipping and tucking an adjective here or there in public speeches—would have overridden the factors that led to Democrats’ catastrophic 2010 losses. The flat economy, the party-line stretch to pass the Affordable Care Act, the gravitational pull that was bound to drag Democrats down to Earth after their big successes in the 2006 and 2008 congressional elections.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list, either.

I wonder if Obama is able to acknowledge his actual failures, and not just the “communication” and districting ones, even to himself. I tend to doubt it. It does seem, though, that unlike most ex-presidents, he plans to stay very active in party politics, although not in an elective office.

19 Responses to “Let’s take a local look: the state legislatures”

  1. Big Maq Says:

    “the scale of modern life makes it impossible to know about things in the way people in a village used to know what was going on in that small arena. And so we are dependent on image shapers and the media to construct a reality for us, and we are often none the wiser that it is a distorted reality” – Neo

    Today, we are self selecting the reality (confirmation bias, bubble), rather than consume views that may challenge our assumptions about the world.

    As some have said here that steadfastly “We know facts, reason and logic support our position. ” Yep, they have a lock on all there is to know, to firmly assert their “solutions”.

  2. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    It will indeed be curious to see what Barack H. Obama does next. For a soon-to-be-ex-president, he’s a relatively young man.

    My hope is that he’ll apply for, and win, the post of UN Secretary General. If he treats that the way he treated the U.S. Presidency, he’ll run the organization right into the ground.

  3. Big Maq Says:

    “Since Obama took office, Republicans have captured control of 27 state legislative chambers Democrats held after the 2008 elections. The GOP now controls the most legislative seats it has held since the founding of the party.”

    We should also be aware that those gains were made at a time where the GOP represented a certain operating philosophy and set of principles.

    With trump, it is up in the air as to what the GOP represent going forward.

    The dems used to be the party home for southern racists and their sympathizers. But, things change.

    Will the GOP continue to be the party of fiscal restraint, fewer regulations, free market economics?

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    Daniel in Brookline:

    I don’t think so.

    The UN has a tradition (not a rule per se, but a tradition that’s not been violated) that no one from a Security Council nation can hold that post.

  5. Cornhead Says:

    The Nebraska Senate is listed as nonpartisan but it really isn’t. This is a holdover fantasy from the days of George Norris.

  6. DirtyJobsGuy Says:

    State legislators tend to be very local (towns, counties) so they also tend to a better indicator of local sentiment. In most states the Democrats own the big cities and get huge majorities there. But they have done this by capturing the subsidy class at both the high and low income levels, leaving the taxpaying public out in the rest of the state. Today the public employee unions run the show for the Democrats, so their ability to represent statewide interest is greatly reduced.

  7. Yancey Ward Says:

    If Trump follows through and appoints a justice/s in the Scalia mold, the court challenges to the redistricting will be greatly reduced in effectiveness. One of the primary reasons Republicans were able to win the House in 1994 was the creation of majority-minority districts, and all done with the Democrats cooperation. Democrats have finally realized that decision was a terrible mistake, but one that can’t be fixed without getting gerrymandering basically outlawed by some institution- preferably an institution that doesn’t have members standing for reelection themselves- i.e. the federal courts.

  8. Steve S Says:

    Gerrymandering, yeah.

    One of the current battles here in Houston is a City Council resolution to take two of their seats and make them ‘at-large’ instead of tied to a geographic sector. The Latino activists are upset about this because, they claim, it will dilute their rights of representation on the Council.

    The city of Houston is 45% Hispanic, and 25% White (22% Black, 6% Asian BTW). The Hispanics have a nearly 2:1 plurality, verging on a majority, yet they still claim a need for protected seats on the Council. Give. Me. A. Break.

    They do not seem to have thought through the message that such activism sends: that even with an overwhelming plurality, they are saying that they cannot appeal to anyone outside of the Hispanic community.

    Nor has it registered with them (or the President) that creating ‘safe seats’ is gerrymandering. While they want ‘safe seats’ they don’t want gerrymandering? So once again: Give. Me. A. Break.

    Finally, when a ‘safe seat’ is established, a ‘floor’ has been installed – but it is overlooked that a ‘ceiling’ was also installed.

  9. physicsguy Says:

    Here in CT, the senate is now split straight down the middle with equal numbers of R and D, so the GOP made some gains. It will throw a bit of a wrench into the Democratic agenda, but certainly won’t stop it. What’s disappointing in this state is that Malloy (governor) has an approval rating of about 23%, yet all these people here keep going for the Dem. ticket. Then they complain about GE leaving for Mass, the high taxes, stagnant housing market etc. In this state you can’t fix stupid.

    What killed the GOP brand here was Weicker reneging on his pledge for no state income tax, and then Rowland being arrested.

  10. Paul in Boston Says:

    I remember that after one of Obama’s previous trips to Europe a senior European diplomat was asking around about how the XXV amendment to the Constitution could be invoked for Obama. The nameless diplomat thought that our President is delusional and needs to be replaced for health reasons. Apparently Obama has an even weaker connection with reality than a year or two ago.

  11. parker Says:

    Bho lives in a room full of mirrors reflecting his majesty. He will preen, make book deals, make million dollar speeches around the planet, and never, ever, acknowledge the destruction he has caused. I think of him as the Godzilla expresident to be. He can only create destruction everywhere he goes.

    I think the nuts and bolts of the ground game are now beneath his royal excellency. Homes in DC, NYC, and Hawaii will be more his style.

  12. jvermeer Says:

    The Repub-control-the-House-through-gerrymandering meme seems to be a robotic post in many comment sections. The most gerrymandered districts, to my knowledge, are minority/majority districts created so black Dems can be elected.

  13. geokstr Says:

    Now is the perfect time to make a big push for an Article V Convention of the States to Propose Amendments to the Constitution.

  14. Tuvea Says:

    jvermeer, please stop with the actual facts already.

    That. Isn’t. Fair.

  15. parker Says:


    I favor an Article V convention, but we need one more state to turn gop. Perhaps after 2018, but don’t expect too much.

    1. Change the term of Representatives to 4 years, and limit them to 2 terms.

    2. Limit senators to 2 terms.

    3. No pensions for federal employees, Social Security is good enough for them. That should include elected officials.

    4. All federal judges are limited to one 10 year term of office.

    5. Federal budgets must be balanced.

    6. Except in extreme circumstances, no more authorization of the use of force. Presidents must seek a declaration of war from congress.

    7. Every piece of legislation must pass the test of the 9th and 10th.

    8. Abolish the departments of Education, Commerce, and Health and Human Services.

    9. Repeal the 16th and 17th Amendments.

    10. Remove the Commerce Clause.

    That is my wish list.

  16. J.J. Says:

    I’ll second that list, parker. Throw in abolishing the Energy Dept. as well.

  17. parker Says:

    OK JJ, the department of Energy. The 10 did not include all my wish list, just the top 10.

    I would also like to abolish the BLM (no not that one) and turn those lands over to the states to dispose as the may decide. Keep medicare A&B, discard the rest. Impose a civics test in order to vote, limit the ability to vote to those 21 and over who can pass the fore mentioned civica test. Impose a death sentence on all who enter the country illegally.

    I have a few more, but will not bore you.I

  18. miklos000rosza Says:

    Since Obama has never allowed access to his SAT scores, or grades, it’s hard to imagine that these are wonderful, and he’s had enough connection with reality to hide them, even as he’s boasted that he’s smarter than is speechwriters, policy advisors, etc… though perhaps this generates some internal dissonance in his psyche. But who knows?

    I don’t presume that a con-man who gets away with a lie is ever tormented by this, or in any way introspective. Getting away with lies is, rather, a source of private satisfaction.

  19. Big Maq Says:

    @parker – wish list items:

    Lobbying time limits both pre and post office.

    If deficit spending is required, needs supermajority of states (governors) to approve (e.g. in war time).

    Sunset clause on all laws, other than those written to the Constitution. They have to be re-approved by House, Senate, and POTUS.

    All laws, but for the Constitutional ones, must have a stated rationale, objective measurement targets, and target timeline. These cannot be changed on renewal, but failure to meet targets invalidates the law. 10 year ban on similar laws thereafter.

    Congress to establish a timeline of no more than 10 years to review and renew all existing laws subject to the above two provisions.

    Congressional right to review and reverse administrative policies, directives, memorandum, etc, at their discretion.

    All party leaders in each House, Senate, and the POTUS lose their elected seat if a budget is not passed by an annual deadline. Their designated second in line has 30 days to agree to a budget. Rinse repeat as many times as necessary. Continuing Resolution is automatic until budget agreement is reached.

    Admittedly, these are not fully baked, in how they probably need to be expressed and unintended impact, but this gives a direction of thought for discussion as to how to reinforce the balance of power and providing serious brakes to the speed in which new laws can pile up.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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