by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As I type this note, the lead story at National Review Online is John Hood’s latest NR cover story on conservatives’ recent state-level electoral success.
In general, however, Republican success in state and local politics is an underreported story. It extends far beyond the Tar Heel State. The post-2012 talk of conservatism’s electoral weakness and policy failures is disconnected from the personal experiences of many politicians, journalists, analysts, and activists who work at the state and local levels. While grassroots conservatives were disappointed at the reelection of President Obama and Republican misfires in races for the U.S. Senate, they continue to enjoy unprecedented influence and success in state capitals — while local liberals feel alienated from the governments and institutions they long dominated.
Even after giving up some of their 2010 legislative gains thanks to Obama’s 2012 coattails, Republicans still control more state offices than they have in generations. They hold 30 of 50 state governorships and 58 of 98 partisan legislative chambers. The nonprofit news service Stateline reports that in 25 states, comprising 53 percent of the U.S. population, the GOP controls both the executive and the legislative branch. Only 13 states, with 30 percent of the U.S. population, have unified Democratic governments. In addition, Republicans are strongly represented in local government, albeit primarily at the county level rather than in the increasingly Democratic big cities. In some states, such as my native North Carolina, the GOP’s local success has no modern precedent: A majority of the state’s 100 county governments are now under Republican control, which hasn’t been the case since General Sherman’s army was camped outside Raleigh.
As it happens, the political transformation of North Carolina and other states in the formerly Democratic “Solid South” is a big part of the story. In the 2012 cycle, voters in the last state of the old Confederacy with a Democratic legislature — Arkansas — gave Republicans control of both chambers. In the broader South, only Kentucky’s house of representatives retains a Democratic majority. Elsewhere in the country, Democrats regained some legislatures they lost in the Republican-wave election of 2010, such as those in Minnesota and Maine. But the GOP retained its recent gains in other presidential-blue states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin.