State legislatures: The real victory

By Bruce Walker
web posted November 13, 2000

In the wake of an election in which -- for only the third time since the Second World War -- Democrats and parties to the left obtained a majority of the vote (albeit, as in 1948, the majority was wafer thin), it is easy to be quietly glum about what happened on November 7. Do we know yet whether we have a President Bush? Not yet -- but we do know that Republicans have won a vitally critical election: state legislatures.

Yes, Republicans held the House of Representatives, even while losing seats for the third straight general election. Yes, Republicans held onto the Senate [the Senate ended up being 50-50 after this article was published - ed], even while losing seats when they might well have been gaining seats (New York and New Jersey were ripe for the picking, if either Republican governor had run). Yes, Republicans won the grand prize, although without a majority or even a plurality -- much less any "mandate." Yes, Republicans still have thirty state governors, although a tantalizing statehouse in Missouri was missed and the number of Republican governors dropped -- again -- by one. Yes, conservatives did not do particularly well on our usual plebiscites -- no real messages from the people.

Forget all that! Republicans won -- and won convincingly -- at the grass roots of state legislatures. This vital link in political power falls easily below the radar screen. What makes the scope of the victory even more obscure is the current "map" of who runs which state legislatures: It looks even, and it is just that -- dead even. Republicans control outright seventeen state legislatures and Democrats control the same number. Fifteen states have one party control one house, and the other party control the other house.

So what's the big deal? First, Republicans made headway in Election 2000. They gained control of some legislative chambers that they had not controlled before, or tied up chambers that Democrats had controlled. Democrats also picked up a chamber or two, but on balance Republicans gained control or tied up more legislative chambers from Democrats than the other way around: In short, unlike the Senate, the House, the Governors, or the Presidency, Republicans in state legislatures did better than the Democrats by any measurement.

Second, this is the time of reapportionment and redistricting. Ten years ago, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in only six of the fifty states. This time around, Republicans will control the process in seventeen of the fifty states. Out of the ten largest states, Republicans will control the process in five -- Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey -- and will the governor and one house of the legislature in three of the remaining five -- Texas, New York, and Illinois. Only in California and North Carolina will Democrats be able to draw legislative districts the way they wish. This is a vastly better picture for Republicans than ten years ago, even considering Republicans no longer have a veto in California (they never were able to actually draw districts).

It gets better. The states in which Democrats will have a free hand are those very states in the South that President-Elect Bush just swept easily -- North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. The conservative orientation of the vast majority of federal legislators from these states is pretty well assured, and Republicans have and will be competitive in each state.

What does this mean to Republicans? It means that they will have a much easier time electing Republicans to the House of Representatives in the next decade than in the past decade. Many more districts will be drawn to maximize Republican voting strength, and many that had been drawn to elect Democrats will be drawn fairly. Given the power of incumbency that House Republicans now have, the ability of Democrats to dislodge Republicans from the House will become harder with time (the "term-limited" Republican class of 1994 is now gone, and the remainder are in for the duration).

It also means that Republicans will have a much easier time electing future state legislators. This quirk of gerrymandering has tended to be overlooked: Drawing state legislative boundaries to maximize Democrats in state legislative chambers means fewer resources need to be committed to holding those seats, which makes future gerrymandering of both state and federal legislative districts much easier.

Now Democrats in state legislatures face twin problems: (1) Most states legislative districts will be either drawn fairly or drawn to favor Republicans, a big change from the past; (2) Republicans now enjoy the value of incumbency at the state legislative level as well, making it harder for Democrat "outsiders" to win back seats. In addition, state legislators are the first rung in the political "cursus honorum" -- the climb of political careers to lower statewide elective offices, then congressmen, governors, and senators. The Republicans have a much stronger bench than ten years ago.

One delightful consequence of all this is that Democrats may actually begin to see some benefit in good government. Gerrymandering is a particularly noxious form of political war, and the dangers of gerrymandering in the computer age, when voting patterns can be viewed under an electron microscope, will only grow worse with time.

Here is a thought: Governors Ridge, Jeb Bush, Engler, Whitman, and Taft pay a very public visit to Governor Davis of California. Invite Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and every other "good government" liberal organization. Offer to submit all congressional and legislative boundary realignments to an impartial commission with the injunction to draw each district, in the words of the old Congressional statute passed in the Nineteenth Century by Republicans, to be "compact, contiguous, and as nearly equal as practicable in population."

Point out that campaign and electoral reform can be achieved in a truly bipartisan manner. Perhaps President-Elect Bush could lead the contingent, as a former governor himself, and say that his is truly a hammer blow for reform. Ask the Green Party and Jesse Ventura to come along -- perhaps ask Jesse himself to make his legislature, which is divided between the two major parties -- take that pledge as well.

Gerrymandering costs Republicans each decade ten to fifteen seats in Congress, several legislative chambers, and hundreds of state legislative seats -- or at least it has until now. Republicans have a rare opportunity to fix this problem once and for all, to gain the moral high ground, and to do so without costing the party a single political advantage.

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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