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The white rural voters who helped propel Donald Trump to his stunning victory in the presidential race and enabled Republicans to keep their majorities in both houses of Congress on Nov. 8 may have helped some GOP candidates further down-ticket too, with Democrats having failed to make the state legislative gains that had been predicted for them. But there seems to have been even less of a coattail effect when it comes to the host of left-leaning ballot measures that were also contested.
Heading into the election at least 18 legislative chambers in 13 states were considered vulnerable to a shift of party control, with the majority party’s margin 3 to 6 seats in seven of the chambers and just one or two seats in six. Twelve of those chambers were held by Republicans, while six were controlled by Democrats, giving the Democrats a clear opportunity to close the gap Republicans opened up in 2010, when they took control of 24 Democrat-controlled chambers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But Democrats only managed to pick up four Republican-controlled chambers: Nevada’s House and Senate, New Mexico’s House and Washington’s Senate. Those gains give the Democrats control of both chambers in three additional states, at least numerically; Republicans will still have functional control of Washington’s Senate, with one Democrat caucusing with Republicans. The Senate in Connecticut – despite being another state won by Clinton - shifted from Democratic control to an 18-18 tie with Republicans, splitting control of that state’s Legislature between the two parties as well. (At press time New York’s Senate was also numerically tied with one race still too close to call, but the chamber will likely continue to be functionally controlled by a coalition of Republicans and a group of breakaway Democrats.) Three other Democrat-controlled chambers, Iowa’s Senate, Kentucky’s House and Minnesota’s Senate - the former two in states won by Trump - also flipped to the Republicans, shifting those three legislatures from split to GOP control.
The net effect of those changes is that there are now a total of 32 legislatures controlled by Republicans, 14 controlled by Democrats and three split between the two parties. (For more about statehouse party control see Bird’s eye view.)
“The [legislative candidates] fought to a draw in a 10-round fight,” NCSL’s Tim Storey told Lou Cannon, writing for RealClearPolitics. “The Republicans are still champions.”
Democrats appear to have had better luck with the 154 statewide ballot measures that were also contested in 35 states on Election Day. Those measures included an unusually high number of left-leaning citizen initiatives, which Bloomberg’s Paul Dwyer attributed in part to frustration among liberals about the Republican’s dominance of state legislatures. Nearly three quarters of the measures were passed by voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Ballot Measures Database.
Those voter approvals included citizen initiatives dealing with one of the most liberal issues on the ballot, marijuana legalization. All four of the measures seeking legalization of the drug for medical use passed, including the first in the South: Arkansas’ Issue 6 and Florida’s Amendment 2. And all but one of the five measures aimed at legalizing recreational use of the drug also passed, including California’s Proposition 64, approved by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent. That measure in particular could give a major boost to the recreational marijuana movement - which had already scored victories in four states and the District of Columbia - given that California, the nation’s most populous state, was the first to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996, and 24 other states have taken that action since. Voters in Arizona, however, a state that voted Republican in every presidential election but one (Clinton v. Dole in 1996) since 1952, including last week’s contest, rejected a recreational marijuana measure there, Prop. 205, on a 52 percent to 48 percent vote.
Voters in four states - Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington - passed initiatives increasing their respective minimum wage rates. And voters in South Dakota, which supported Trump by a nearly 30-point margin (61.5 percent to 31.7 percent), rejected a popular referendum (Referred Law 20) on legislation signed into law last year (SB 177) making workers under 18 ineligible for a minimum wage increase - from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour - approved by the state’s voters in 2014 (Measure 18). The measure’s resounding defeat, by a vote of 71 percent to 29 percent, means those under 18 will remain at the higher wage rate.
Three of the four gun control measures on state ballots also passed, including California’s Prop. 63, engineered by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), which bans the sale of large-capacity magazines and requires background checks for ammunition purchases, as well as makes stealing a gun a felony and requires the reporting of lost or stolen firearms. But Maine voters rejected Question 3, providing for background checks for firearm sales or transfers between parties that are not licensed gun dealers.
One of the highest-profile measures on California’s ballot, healthcare-related Prop. 61, failed on a 54 percent to 46 percent vote, defying an average of recent polls showing 69.5 percent support for the measure. The initiative, spurred by soaring drug prices, would have prohibited state agencies from paying more for prescription drugs than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays for them. But pharmaceutical companies poured over $100 million into the campaign to defeat the initiative and managed to convince patient advocacy groups that the measure might force them to raise prices they charge the VA to deal with the cap.
California voters also rejected Prop. 60, a health-related initiative that could only have appeared on California’s ballot, requiring actors in pornographic films to use condoms and requiring producers of such films to pay for actors’ vaccinations and medical exams. Opponents had argued that the measure would have forced the adult film industry out of the state.
But California voters did pass another healthcare initiative, Prop. 52, requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote by the Legislature to amend a current law imposing fees on hospitals used to obtain federal matching funds and pay for Medi-Cal and other healthcare services. The measure, backed by the California Hospital Association, was actually intended for the state’s 2014 ballot but failed to qualify in time.
Colorado voters, meanwhile, rejected Amendment 69, which would have created a state-run universal healthcare system funded through an additional 10 percent income tax. But they also passed Prop. 106, which will allow physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
There were numerous other left-leaning initiatives and referendums on state ballots, including measures banning the death penalty (California Prop. 62, which failed); protecting animal rights (Massachusetts Question 3, Montana I-177 and Oregon Measure 100, which passed, failed and passed, respectively); imposing election or campaign finance reforms (Maine Question 5, Missouri Amendment 2 and Washington Initiative 1464, which passed, passed and failed, respectively); upholding a ban on plastic grocery bags (California Prop. 67, which passed); and increasing or extending taxes (California Props. 55 and 56, Colorado Amendment 72, Maine Question 2, Missouri Constitutional Amendment 3 and Prop. A, North Dakota Initiated Statutory Measure 4, Oklahoma SQ 779, Oregon Measure 97, and Washington Initiative 732, all of which failed except the California and Maine measures).
There were also a number of progressive ballot measures that were legislatively referred, such as California’s Prop. 58, eliminating the English-only immersion requirement for teaching non-English speakers in public schools, which passed by a margin of about 72 percent to 28 percent. And there were plenty of right-leaning issues on state ballots as well, including measures supporting the death penalty (California Prop. 66, which passed; Nebraska Referendum 426, which failed, but in doing so repealed a law banning the death penalty; and Oklahoma SQ 776, which passed); protecting the right to hunt and fish (Indiana Public Question 1 and Kansas Constitutional Amendment 1, both of which passed) or farm and ranch (Oklahoma State Question 777, which failed); granting constitutional authority to require voters to present ID at the polls (Missouri Constitutional Amendment 6, which passed); constitutionally enshrining the “right to work” without having to join a union (Alabama Amendment 8, which passed; and Virginia Question 1, which failed); allowing public money to be spent for religious purposes (Oklahoma SQ 790, which failed); and prohibiting expansion of sales and use taxes (Missouri Constitutional Amendment 4, which passed).
There were also a handful of notable measures on state ballots with more ambiguous political leanings. For instance, Idaho’s HJR 5, which passed, will allow the state’s Legislature to approve or reject rules promulgated by state agencies. It was placed on the ballot by a vote of 62-3 in the House, which has 56 Republicans but also 14 Democrats, and 34-1 in the Senate, split 28 to 7 between the two parties, according to LexisNexis State Net’s legislative tracking database. Colorado’s Amendment 71, which also passed, will increase the signature requirement for ballot initiatives to 2 percent of each Senate district and require 55-percent voter support to pass constitutional amendments. It was supported by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, but also by former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.
But it’s the successful left-leaning initiatives - the product of “liberals’ frustration” - that may be the sole consolation for Democrats in an election in which the races at the top of the ticket didn’t go at all their way.