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Republican state legislatures and conservative initiative

By Bruce Walker
web posted September 27, 2010

Hidden in all the predictions of Republicans capturing the House of Representatives and perhaps, also, the Senate, and winning key gubernatorial races is the coming victory of Republicans in state legislative races this November.  It is easy to follow Senate and gubernatorial races – they are few in number and have large polling samples.  Lots of people care who wins these races.  Analyses of House races are more difficult, because of the sheer number of races and also because of the impact of oddly shaped congressional districts.  But professional pundits still study swing districts and can estimate gains fairly closely. 

In stark contrast, there are almost 7,500 state legislative districts. Members of the upper chamber of the state legislature (every state but Nebraska has a bicameral legislature) typically run every four years, but members of the lower chamber run every two years.  That means over 6,000 state legislative races will take place in November.  Some districts are small enough so that the candidate can, quite literally, visit every home in his district during a campaign.  How are these races decided?  Tip O'Neil once said "All politics is local." 

A close study of electoral data suggests that maxim is not true.  Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures writes in Crystal Ball that Republicans should make substantial gains in state legislatures because:  (1) 2010 is a midterm election with a Democrat president and so the normal losses of the party of an incumbent president will produce some losses, and (2) Democrats in 2006 and in 2008 won state legislative seats in districts which were more naturally Republican districts. 

Alan Abramowitz has studied the partisan gains and losses in state legislative races since 1946.  His research demonstrates that political parties which make gains in House of Representative races make gains in state legislative races that closely track House gains.  He cites data which shows that Republican gains in the House in 1946, 1966 and 1994 were matched by big gains in state legislative seats, and Republican losses in the House in 1958, 1974 and 2006 were matched by big losses in state legislative seats.  The correlation is very close.  The Gallup generic congressional ballot has proven an excellent predictor of how many seats a party will win or lose in state legislative seats, and Abramowitz provides a table which is an easy reference to the number of state legislative seats which Republicans should control based upon the early September generic congressional ballot.  Although the generic ballot bounces a lot lately, it has favored Republicans over Democrats.  That means Republicans will capture many state legislative chambers and increase their numbers even in chambers in which control does not change.

Why does this matter?  The redistricting of congressional and state legislative districts, which the legislatures elected this November will determine, largely decides which political party will have the advantage in House and in state legislative races over the next decade.  The reapportionment of congressional seats – the change in House seats among the states based on census data - is already going to give conservative states more seats in Congress at the expense of leftist states.  Combine that change with redistricting that helps conservatives, and the impact could be enough to put the House out of Democrat hands for the next ten years.

But winning state legislatures is good news for conservatives in another way as well.  These bodies are much closer to the people than politicians in Washington.  The legislators live among the constituents they represent.  They cannot print money to make the state budget work.  They cannot hide from angry voters like so many Democrats in Congress have done recently.  They live in the real world.  As a consequence, state legislators are more naturally conservative than Washington politicians.    

State government, led by state legislatures, can prove an excellent incubator for conservative policies.  The Arizona Immigration Law is an excellent example of this power of state legislatures to affect national debate.  Proposition C in Missouri, a ballot initiative that overwhelming passed and which rejected some of Obamacare, was referred to the people by the Missouri Legislature, which conservative Republicans control.  John Grizzo in Human Events notes that Republicans in state legislatures are going to be putting Obamacare to a vote of the people in more states, like Florida, Arizona and Oklahoma – although the Florida ballot initiative was stricken as "misleading" by a Florida judge.  The Oklahoma Legislature has adopted a ballot initiative which would ban Sharia from being used as a source of law in Oklahoma courts, a message which will likely pass by a landslide.  Nebraska has enacted a law which bans abortion more than twenty weeks after gestation on the ground that it causes fetal pain, providing a potent new weapon against militant abortionists. 

Republican state legislatures are much more likely to be conservative than Republicans in Congress.  These state legislatures can force the left to respond to conservative initiatives on key issues:  immigration, Obamacare, Sharia, the unborn and other things.  State legislatures can craft laws so to appeal to the conservative majority of our nation and inspire Tea Party rallies of support.  Because in many states the legislature can refer ballot measures to a vote of the people, conservatives who control state legislatures can put leftists in the very uncomfortable position of directly defying the will of the people as expressed in popular votes.  We will all be watching the congressional races this November, but below the radar screen, big Republican victories in state legislative races could produce another powerful weapon for conservative principles to prevail in America. ESR

Bruce Walker is the author of a new book Poor Lenin's Almanac: Perverse Leftists Proverbs for Modern Life.

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