October 17, 2016

DAVIES | The Shriveling of State Politics

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Pauses for breath during this presidential campaign have seen much talk of the Democrats’ chances to retake the Senate. Their prospects appear to be buoyed by a rapidly sinking Donald Trump, who isn’t slinging mud as much as he is wallowing in it. His remarks and behavior have created quite the quandary for vulnerable Republican senators in purple states. Sure, Trump’s bark might be worse than his bite but the real trouble is his base.

Yet among all this hopeful chatter Democrats continue to neglect state-level races, as they are wont to do. The left sees the federal government as their real objective, the seat of power where change is made, like the Affordable Care Act or marriage equality. This federal focus has ceded control of the states to Republicans, who now control the governorship and hold a majority of legislative seats in 23 states. Democrats can say the same about only seven.

Republicans enjoy total control in presidential battleground states, like North Carolina, and even in some federally Democratic states, like Wisconsin. Such control has enabled the passage of the famous “bathroom bill,” the decimation of public unions and the weakening of higher education (no points for guessing what this author thinks of such ‘developments’). Though such actions may prove a useful motivator to drive up Democratic turnout every four years, they have yet to provoke any serious political competition on the state level.

The rise of one-party states is bad for politics and bad for people. Policy debates develop within a single party rather than between groups with different views. Politics thus becomes a conversation within a cabal, the members of which are all committed to maintaining the situation as is. This insularity is exacerbated by today’s partisan climate in which neither party’s voters will brook much dissent by their representatives and an atmosphere in which the loss of a seat to the other side is seen as an event of nigh apocalyptic danger.

A lack of state legislative competition also facilitates and promotes gerrymandering of Congressional districts. Republicans have relied on this fact since 2010 — a census year and thus a Congressional redistricting year — to boost their House prospects by redrawing districts to favor their candidates. In those midterms the party undertook Operation RedMap, pouring money into a few vulnerable state legislative seats in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania in order to secure a majority in the state legislatures and ensure unfettered control over the redistricting process. This strategy has resulted in a bulletproof House majority since then. Even Donald Trump’s increasingly likely landslide defeat will probably prove insufficient to dislodge the Republican House majority.

The Democratic Party’s state-level shriveling will thus continue to inhibit its chances in federal elections and continue to reward Democratic popular vote majorities with vanishingly small minorities in many Congressional delegations. Following the Republicans’ lead and redirecting a little political money towards state legislative races could go a long way towards making state politics competitive again, though at the cost of even more dollars sloshing through the American political system.

That said, the next redistricting year is 2020, which also happens to be a presidential election year (and a year for which non-Trump Republicans are already champing at the bit). Given Democrats’ bumper turnout in presidential elections, they will hopefully take back enough purple state legislatures as to be able to loosen the gerrymandering screw or, most likely, turn it just as hard in the other direction.

Because of course, this strategy only switches which party is doing the gerrymandering. It does not address the prevalence of gerrymandering, a process that results in 51 percent of Pennsylvanians voting Democratic but the party taking only 28 percent of the vote. It could just as easily be Republicans getting the short end of the stick.

Alex Davies is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.