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The spectacle of Democratic state legislators from Wisconsin and Indiana washing their underwear in motel sinks across state lines in order to avoid casting their votes back home is extraordinary. These desperation tactics highlight the precarious state in which Democrats find themselves in state capitols across the country. Voters drove so many Democrats out of state office last fall, it seems the only way the remaining Democrats can stop Republicans from enacting conservative reforms is to go on the lam to deny them a quorum.
Republicans made historic gains on the national level in November, securing the largest turnover of seats in the House of Representatives since 1948.
But these gains pale in comparison with those Republicans made at the state level. Backed by an unprecedented $30 million effort by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), headed by former national GOP chairman Ed Gillespie, the GOP picked up 690 seats in state legislatures in 2010-outpacing the previous record of 628 seats won by Democrats in 1974 following the Watergate scandal.
“The battles we are seeing in these states could soon spread to other parts of the country.”–Marc Thiessen
Republicans wrested 20 state legislative chambers from Democratic control and now have majorities in both legislative chambers in 25 states (up from 14 before Election Day). There are now more Republican state legislators in office than at any time since 1928.
The GOP also picked up governorships from Democrats in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wyoming. Republicans now occupy half the governors’ mansions in the country and control the governor’s office and state legislatures in 20 states. The result is a true grass-roots policy revolution, as newly minted GOP governors and state legislators pursue bold reforms-including cuts to state pensions and health benefits, restrictions on collective bargaining, corporate tax reforms, school-choice legislation and deep reductions in state spending.
Consider: In all three states at the center of the debate over reining in the public-sector unions-Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio-Republicans have taken control of the governorships and the state legislatures. In Wisconsin, Republicans elected Gov. Scott Walker, defeated Democratic Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker and took over the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly. In Indiana, Republicans won control of the Indiana House of Representatives in November, giving Gov. Mitch Daniels full control of the state legislature. And in Ohio, the GOP won the governorship and control of the state house of representatives (it already held the Senate)-giving newly elected Gov. John Kasich the upper hand in his fight to cut state spending and enact collective-bargaining reforms.
The battles we are seeing in these states could soon spread to other parts of the country. In Maine, for example, Republicans won control of both the governor’s office and the state legislature for the first time in decades-and GOP lawmakers are using their newfound power to push for right-to-work legislation and $524 billion in cuts to retirement and health benefits for state workers. “We’re on the precipice,” says Chris Quint, the director of the Maine State Employees Association. “We get flooded with calls every day from our members asking us when we’re going to take to the streets.”
The GOP’s electoral sweep in the states could affect national policy as well. In November, Republicans secured a net gain of five attorney general seats-and with the recent defection of Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to the GOP, the number of Republican attorneys general has grown to 24, the most in history. These Republican state attorneys general are leading the fight in the courts to kill Obamacare-and if the Supreme Court strikes the law down, Democrats can trace its demise to the GOP revolution in the states.
The Republican sweep in the states will also affect the control and composition of Congress for a decade, as Republican governors and legislatures redraw redistricting maps and prevent Democrats from carving Republicans out of their seats. And-perhaps most important-the Republican Revolution in the states has provided the party with a strong farm system for 2016 and beyond. As they build records of achievement, Republican governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie will all be strong potential standard bearers for the GOP six years from now. And those 690 new state senators and legislators could produce a plethora of future congressmen, senators and even presidents. As Ed Gillespie puts it, “A few years before he was president, Barack Obama was State Sen. Obama.”
With all these setbacks, it is little wonder that some Democratic legislators have taken refuge in Motel 6. But they can’t hide out forever. And GOP leaders have a message for them: Come on home whenever you’re ready-“we’ll leave the light on for you.”
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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