Republicans’ Unprecedented Success in State Races is Likely to Continue

Democrats like to argue that Republicans are doomed to demographic extinction, the result of the rapid rise of minority populations and the tendency for young voters to skew leftward. Actually, they’ve been arguing this for over a decade now, which in and of itself tends to undermine the narrative. Nevertheless, it has prompted a welcome dose of introspection and has created a wellspring of conservative reform ideas, both of which will serve the party well with an admittedly changing electorate.

But this is not a post that examines what needs to change. This is a post that reiterates how well positioned the party actually is. In fact, according to the Index of Party Strength, put together by political scientists Sean Trende and David Byler, the GOP is currently enjoying its best showing since 1928. The Index measures five things: presidential performance, House performance (which takes into account the popular vote and the share of the chamber won), Senate performance (share of the Senate held), gubernatorial performance (the party’s share of governorships) and state legislative performance (share of state Houses and state Senates held along with the share of state House seats and state Senate seats held).

Using this scale, where zero means the parties are evenly matched, Republicans’ average score is a -4 and median score is a -6. But presently the GOP’s score is 33.8., marking only the third time that the party has been above 15 in the index since World War II.

So how have we done it? Well, controlling 247 out of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, which is the single biggest GOP majority since the Great Depression doesn’t hurt. But in reality, the key to Republican’s recent dominance (outside the race for the White House) has been further downballot where the GOP has been dominant in winning state legislative seats and governor’s mansions.

Consider this: Republicans control 69 out of the 99 state legislative chambers, the result of having gained 913 state legislative seats in the past three elections. Chris Cillizza, writing for the Washington Post, digs in further:

…Republicans now control more than 4,100 seats  — their highest number since 1920. After taking over 11 legislative chambers from Democrats in 2014, Republicans now control 30 state legislatures completely — and have full control of state government (state legislature and governorship) in 23 states. Democrats, by contrast, have full control of 11 state legislatures and total control of state government in just seven states.

What’s more, 31 out of the 50 governorships are held by Republicans, tied for the fourth largest number since 1930.

“It’s an untold story. There’s a ground-game dominance that we’ve been able to create as a party,” Sean Spicer, chief strategist for the Republican National Committee tells US News.

Of course there’s another side of the story too. “Democrats are like cicadas,” explains Donna Brazile, “they come out every four years. The midterms, the state and local elections, they’re just not sexy enough.”

Sexy or not, these downballot races are incredibly important. States not only serve as laboratories for conservative ideas, which can be studied and replicated at the federal level, states also serve as a proving ground for talent that will eventually run for national office. The more people Republicans have at the local level, the deeper the talent pool is to draw from when a House or Senate seat either becomes open or competitive.

So where do we go from here? Typically, when a party has reached that level of success there simply isn’t anywhere to go but down. The Republican party wave (and anti-Obama sentiment) that washed into competitive states tends in 2012 and 2014 can should be expected to recede, especially since presidential-year elections tend to be far less favorable for Republicans than do midterm years. But, as Nathan Gonzalez reports for Roll Call, that may not be the case this year or next:

Democrats are at risk of sinking lower this year, if state Attorney General Jack Conway is unsuccessful in his attempt to succeed Democrat Steve Beshear in Kentucky. The term-limited governor is popular, and the GOP nominee, Matt Bevin, is hardly embraced by the Republican establishment after challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in the primary last cycle. But President Barack Obama remains deeply unpopular there.

There isn’t a lot of brighter news for Democrats next year either.

Democrats’ top targets include North Carolina, an emerging battleground where Republican Gov. Pat McCrory faces a competitive re-election race, and Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mike Pence drew national attention (and managed to upset liberals and conservatives) over his handling of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gay rights organizations said would permit discrimination.

But the GOP has good takeover opportunities in West Virginia and Missouri, where Democratic governors are term-limited, and potential targets in New Hampshire and Washington, depending on the field of candidates.

While Democrats like to say that demography is destiny, Republicans understands that success in the states is serendipity. Who is right? The future will tell.