The 2010 elections, in which Republicans seized 23 state legislative chambers from Democrats and secured 29 governor’s mansions, catapulted the GOP into a control seat over the shape of state-level policy. While President Obama and Republicans in Congress fought tooth and nail over nearly every aspect of the president’s agenda, Republicans in the states had remarkable leeway to make policy as they wished.
Over the past two years, Republican state legislators have introduced a round of tea party inspired bills to restrict reproductive health access, impose barriers on voting, undercut the safety net and healthcare access and make life unlivable for immigrants. The battles these bills spurred are certain to continue in the coming years, whatever happens at the federal level.
Recently, there seems to be a sense of relief among liberal and progressive commentators who observe that the swell of conservative populist rage is settling. Pundits have taken to noticing that not once has Mitt Romney publicly associated himself with the tea party, and few congressional candidates appear to be running on the tea party mantle. “Tea party thinking is dead,” declared the liberal Washington Post opinion writer EJ Dion last week, referring to Romney’s move the center in recent debates.
Indeed, the tea party storm that hit the nation like Sandy two years ago seems to have retreated from view.
Yet despite a year’s worth of polling showing voters less attached to tea party symbolism, there’s no indication that the politics insurgent GOP candidates brought with them are going anywhere. The persistence of these conservative politics is nowhere more clear than at the state level.
Election watchers, including the National Council of State Legislatures, project the 2012 elections are unlikely to shift the composition of state legislative chambers. Election watchers say the current legislative field is more stable than it’s been in nearly a decade.
A review of the current state political map reveals that the make up of legislative chambers is unlikely to budge much at all after Nov. 6. That’s because Republicans who seized power in 2010 arrived just in time to redraw maps for their own benefit. The redistricting process following the 2010 Census thus left Republicans firmly in control of a majority of state legislative chambers.
“[T]he redistricting effect trumps any ideological effect,” Louis Jacobson, a respected election handicapper with PolitFact.com, told Colorlines.com this week. “This means that—barring a major Democratic wave—it’s going to take a few cycles for the Democrats to get back to where they were. The combination of the [Republican] wave of 2010 and redistricting means the Democrats are fighting uphill.”
The most conservative Republican party in a generation is now broadly positioned to maintain control of state politics, which for the last two years have been the battlefield over issues that matter most to communities of color, low income families and women.
Tea Party Republicans Redraw the Lines
Every 10 years, after new census data is released, states get to work drawing lines around neighborhoods, huddling counties together, prying cities apart, and coming up with new constituencies for the next decade of state and federal elected officials.
In an ideal world, this map drawing provides every voter an equal voice, regardless of his or her party or race.
But more often than not, redistricting becomes an exercise in securing party power, often, civil rights groups say, through racial gerrymandering. Voting Rights Act suits have been filed by civil rights groups in a handful of states claiming that GOP-led redistricting chops black and Latino voting blocks into pieces, diminishing the collective power of voters of color. In Texas, a federal court ruled earlier this year that the state’s new map intentionally discriminated against voters of color. The state is appealing.
In many states, the party that controls the state legislature holds the redistricting reins. According to data compiled at All About Redistricting, a site run by Loyola law professor Justin Levitt, Republicans controlled state legislative redistricting in 21 states, while Democrats controlled the process in just 8 states. In the 21 remaining states, mixed party legislatures or appointed commissions draw the maps. Though these are supposed to be non-partisan, many aren’t because governors in some states have veto power or the power to appoint commission members.
“The 2010 wave election came on the eve of redistricting and where Republicans were in control they tried to build a seawall to stop the wave from receding,” Levitt said.
Election handicapper Louis Jacobson predicts that 23 out of 98 legislative chambers with partisan systems (Nebraska has a nonpartisan legislature) have a chance of switching party control. However, only six chambers are considered toss-ups, and in sum, both parties are at about equal risk of gaining or losing a few chambers.
“Even if the Democrats manage to seize a few chambers away from the Republicans in 2012,” Jacobson writes at Governing.com, “they will still find themselves far behind the GOP in overall control of chambers on Election Night.”
Sandeep Iyer, of the New York-based Brennan Center, is author of the Center’s recently released a report on redistricting. The report, which focused only on congressional level redistricting, found that Republican led redistricting plans positioned the party to pick up at least 11 seats in Congress that would likely have gone to Democrats.
“I have every reason to think that applied to state legislatures too,” Iyer told Colorlines.com. “These lines matter a lot for who wins and just as much for the making of policy.”
More of the Same Policy Fights
With the basic contours of the political world outside the Beltway likely to remain unchanged, the fights over racial and economic justice that have marked the last two years will remain front and center through the next cycle, regardless of who occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As Colorlines.com has reported for the past year, Republican led legislatures have pushed and passed a wave laws that strike at racial justice. Twenty-nine states passed a total of 69 bills that restrict reproductive rights in 2011. As of April, 30 states had introduced bills to impose drug-testing requirements on welfare, food stamps and other safety net program applicants. Voter ID and anti-immigrant laws have proliferated.
And it looks distinctly like the candidates who arrived with guns blazing in 2010 have more fight in them. To the extent that tea party legislators failed to acheive their full agendas, many candidates will return to finish.
In many states, immigrant rights advocates expect they’ll have to reckon with a new round of anti-immigrant legislation. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled on Arizona’s SB 1070, finding constitutional the part of the bill authorizing cops to inquire about immigration status, Republican legislators are likely to introduce more tightly tailored laws.
“Some of these states, many that have already tried passing anti-immigrant bills, will double down,” said Marisa Franco, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “There will be new iterations of the bills, but the same people will introduce them.”
The most immediately pressing state level fight is the one over the Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court made into a state issue when it ruled on the legislation last summer.
Mitt Romney has pledged to overturn healthcare reform. But even if Obama triumphs on Tuesday, the healthcare bill is in no way secure.
Among the core components of the Affordable Care Act is a requirement that states expand Medicaid coverage to a broader swath of low-income Americans by raising eligibility to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. For the first year, the federal government will foot the bill for expanded coverage and then states will pick up a portion of the expansion. About half of the 32 million uninsured Americans originally expected to gain healthcare were to be covered by the required Medicaid expansion.
The Supreme Court largely gutted the Medicaid requirement when Chief Justice John G. Roberts said that the federal government could not compel states to expand the low-income healthcare program.
States are now left to left to decide about ACA’s Medicaid provision and Republican governors in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Florida have all clearly said they’ll refuse to accept additional federal dollars. Many other Republican legislators and governors have indicated the same.
In North Carolina, Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory is positioned to replace a Democrat in the governor’s mansion. McCrory has called the expansion “irresponsible.” Teamed with a North Carolina state legislature that turned Republican in 2010 and is likely to remain that way because of redistricting, North Carolina is poised to join the ranks of the Medicaid refusers.
In the few states where the electoral battles are not over-determined, the healthcare bill hangs in the balance.
“Our state has not made a decision yet if it’ll accept the money for that expansion,” said Hillary Jorgensen of the group Colorado Progressive Action. Colorado has a split legislature and advocates there say redistricting favored neither party. “Getting the state legislature to agree on the expansion would be huge for low income people. What happens will depend on this election.”
More broadly, Jorgensen says all the issues that have dominated for the last few years will still be the issues next year. “We’ll still be working on voting rights and voter ID, the cost of tuition, and now Medicaid.”
“It’ll depend who wins these elections, but the still issues will be on the table,” she added.