The Hunt For Red November: Explaining Republican Successes at the State Level

Despite the usual flak from conservative news media, the Democratic Party is starting to find reasons to celebrate. Barack Obama is running a victory lap of sorts as his second term approaches an end, and the party a good chance of retaining the White House after President Obama leaves office. On the other side of the party line, the circus of conservative candidates vying for the presidency is led by a neurosurgeon who is quickly showing that medical acumen does not necessarily translate into political savvy. An egotistical and ignorant reality TV star follows close behind, nipping at his heels. Within the current administration, a fractured Republican Party just barely convinced one of its members to ascend to the empty House Speakership. With such dysfunction in the Republican ranks catching the national eye, what can the Democrats possibly have to worry about? Though a Republican implosion appears more likely to the general American public, Democrats are largely ignoring the state-level coup that will have far-reaching implications for the future of the American body politic. The Democrats might have their eyes on the White House – undeniably a supremely important political prize – but examining the rest of the federal and state systems, the prospects look bleak for the party’s control over the remainder of the American government. Congress has been controlled by Republican majorities in both houses since 2010, and considering the trend of midterm elections, it is likely Republicans will continue to occupy Congress with force even if a Democratic candidate ascends to the presidency in 2016.

If you think the idea of a Democratic president with an increasingly divided government is daunting, the news only gets worse for Democrats at the state level. As of the most recent round of gubernatorial elections in 2015, 31 Republican governors preside over state governments. Of these, 24 governors enjoy a full majority of Republican legislators in both houses of their respective state legislatures. The remaining 19 governors of the United States are either Democrat or independent, but only six Democratic governors have the privilege of serving their states alongside a fully Democratic state legislature. The remaining Democratic governors must battle, like Obama has, against legislatures hostile to liberal ideals. When the governor and both houses of a state legislature are controlled by the same party, we use the term “trifecta,” and it is clear that the Republican party, despite their national level debacle, are enjoying a significant margin of control in state governments, holding 24 trifectas to the Democrats’ six.

The underlying foundation of political organization lies in jurisprudence, and to discount the future of the Democrats without considering the political leanings of state and national judiciaries would be remiss. But even factoring in judiciaries, the situation does not look any better for the Democrats. The term “trifecta plus” describes a state with a trifecta and a working majority of a state’s high court that tends to rule along the lines of the trifecta party. A 2014 analysis by the Democratic Judicial Campaign Committee found 22 states where a court could definitively be determined as leaning liberal or conservative. Combining this analysis with the trifecta states, there are only four Democratic trifecta plus states to the Republicans’ nine.

As Republicans consolidate their control over state legislatures, they continue to gerrymander congressional districts to convert their state power into national electoral success. Republicans at the state level also are pursuing policies to curb voting rights and skew electoral demographics towards their voting base. Democrats at the local level have counted on minority voters and organized labor to serve as the spine of Democratic state government, but the waning of union strength due to hostile “right-to-work” laws and hard stances on immigration and path to citizenship initiatives are phasing out some Democratic foot soldiers in the battle for votes.

One of the Democrats’ only hopes to gain a robust majority in all levels of American government is the Supreme Court, which makes winning the White House in 2016 all the more important. When the next president takes office in January 2017, conservative justices like Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy will be 80 years old – both justices represent the strong conservative faction of a Court that has shattered union rights and struck down parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. On the other hand, however, defenders of liberal jurisprudence like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer could be replaced by conservative judges under a Republican president, which would only spell further doom for the power of the Democrats.