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HomeSpotlight Story | Bird’s Eye View | Budget & Taxes | Politics & Leadership | Governors | Hot Issues | Once Around the Statehouse Lightly
Republicans have flourished in U.S. statehouses during the Obama presidency, winning a best-ever number of legislative chambers and a near-record majority of governorships. But GOP legislative domination, as well as control of Congress, may be threatened by the rise of Donald Trump.
“Trump is causing extreme anxiety, even dismay, among Republicans at state and congressional levels,” said Tim Storey, who analyzes politics for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Storey said there is widespread concern that Trump would have a toxic effect on Republican legislative candidates if he is the GOP presidential nominee.
This concern dominates private conversations of Republican officeholders, some of whom have spoken out publicly. In Wisconsin, for instance, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke denounced Trump for lacking a “moral compass.” Steineke, who had originally backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Badger State primary earlier this month. Cruz won an overwhelming victory and with it 36 of Wisconsin’s 42 delegates to the Republican convention.
Republicans enter the 2016 elections in a commanding position in the statehouses. They hold 68 of 99 legislative chambers, more than ever before, and have 4,120 legislators, more than any time since 1920. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, which is nominally non-partisan but functionally Republican.) The GOP leads the Democrats in governorships 31-18, with one independent. Since Obama became president, Democrats have a net loss of 816 state legislative seats. Republicans also hold the U.S. Senate 54-46 and control the U.S. House by more than 50 seats.
Republicans have used their dominance, especially in the 23 states where they control the governorship and both legislative chambers, to advance a mostly conservative agenda of lower taxes, reduced business regulations, tighter abortion controls and strict voter identification laws. Democrats hold only seven such “trifecta” states, where they have pushed climate and minimum wage legislation.
What happens at the top of the ticket usually matters in a presidential election year, and orthodox Republicans fear that a landslide loss for Trump could cost the GOP congressional control and translate into heavy statehouse losses. Trump is viewed unfavorably by two-thirds of Americans, according to a recent Gallup survey. In 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson defeated GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in a landslide, Republicans lost 530 state legislative seats. In 1984, when President Ronald Reagan carried 49 states and won re-election over Democrat Walter Mondale, Republicans picked up 300 legislative seats.
Despite his Wisconsin loss and Cruz’s subsequent pickup of 34 more delegates in Colorado, Trump has a large delegate lead going into the April 19 primary in New York State, in which he is favored. Trump has 743 delegates compared to 545 for Cruz and 143 for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. With 854 delegates yet to be chosen, Trump needs to win 494 of them – 58 percent – to reach the 1,237 required for nomination. He was behind this pace even before his setbacks in Wisconsin and Colorado.
Trump has a hard core of support, concentrated among working class whites and persons without a college education. He has won many more votes than any other candidate in the primaries and sparked heavy turnout. Historically, however, there has been little correlation between how a candidate performs in the primaries and what happens in the general election. That’s because only a fraction of those who vote in November participate in the primaries. By the time of the final primary in California on June 7 about 30 million people will have cast ballots in the primaries, estimates the New York Times. The turnout in November is expected to be four times as much: it was just under 130 million in 2012 and could be higher this year.
Storey said that Republicans enter the state legislative elections this year with the principal goal of holding what they have already won. Still, there are opportunities for both parties in November. Democrats aim at capturing Republican-held senates in Colorado, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Washington and West Virginia. They are also targeting Republican-held houses in Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico and hoping to reduce Republican legislative super-majorities in states such as North Carolina. Republicans are targeting Democratic-held senates in Iowa and Minnesota and Democratic-held houses in Colorado, Kentucky, Maine and Washington.
In this year’s governor’s races, it is mostly Democrats who are playing defense. Democrats hold eight of the 12 contested governorships, and five Democratic governors are retiring or termed out. If Republicans net even a single gain, they will match their modern high of 32 governorships.
Governorships are the most stable offices in American politics, perhaps because voters tend to judge governors on their merits independently of national trends. In 1964, when the Johnson landslide carried Republican congressional and state legislative candidates to defeat, every GOP gubernatorial candidate ran ahead of Goldwater, and Republicans wound up gaining a governorship. As Kevin Robillard of Politico has observed, sitting governors have won 50 of the past 53 contested races, and most turnover occurs when there are open seats.
Republican hopes of adding to their total of governors this year rest on three of the five states in which Democratic governors are departing: West Virginia, Missouri and New Hampshire. The best chance is probably West Virginia, where popular and relatively conservative Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin is term-limited. In Missouri, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is also term-limited. New Hampshire is up for grabs because the well-liked Gov. Maggie Hassan is running for the U.S. Senate. All three states have yet to hold gubernatorial primaries.
Republicans have two vulnerable incumbent governors, according to separate analyses by political scientist Larry Sabato and The Washington Post. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence faces a rematch with Democrat John Gregg, who lost by 3 points in 2012. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, under fire for conservative policies, is seeking a second term. He faces a primary and then a challenge from Democrat Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general.
Divided government persists in the United States in part because the electorate in presidential election years differs from the electorate in mid-term elections, when Republicans have made most of their congressional and legislative gains. In off-year elections, the electorate is older and whiter than in presidential years, when more minorities and young people, who tend to vote Democratic, cast ballots.
Latinos are a target group in 2016. In previous elections they have voted in lower percentages than whites or African Americans, but a Trump nomination might bring them to the polls in protest. A rolling Gallup survey taken from January through March found 77 percent of Hispanics opposed to Trump, who has made building a high wall on the Mexican border a centerpiece of his campaign.
Many Republicans are also concerned that Trump will alienate women voters. A CNN poll in mid-March found he was viewed unfavorably by nearly three-fourths of women despite doing almost as well among women as men in several primaries.
Storey said that some Republicans fear that Trump’s unpopularity with women and minorities could cause a three to five percent vote drop off in November if he is the presidential nominee. A decline of this magnitude could threaten the GOP majority in Congress and Republican dominance of statehouses across the land. It would be an “absolute disaster” for the party, said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant who previously worked for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is now trying to mobilize anti-Trump forces in the California primary.
But it’s only April, far too early to know how voters will behave seven months from now. If the rise of Donald Trump holds any lesson, it is to expect the unexpected in politics.