Obama’s legacy is 66 Republican legislatures
by RUSS STEWART
For Republicans in the nation’s state legislatures, Barack Obama’s 8 years in the White House is the gift that keeps on giving.
In the four elections cycles – 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 – subsequent to Obama’s 2008 election, the Republicans gained an incredible 940 legislative seats throughout the country, meaning a plethora of ousted Democratic state senators and state representatives. Republicans now control 66 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers. (Nebraska has a non-partisan, single chamber legislature). After 2008, Republicans controlled 33.
After 2016, Republicans controlled both chambers in all 14 southern legislatures – an unprecedented achievement, and an utter rejection of Obama.
Republicans, under Obama, also gained close to 200 down-ballot state offices, meaning lieutenant governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general, treasurers, auditors, comptrollers, and agriculture commissioners. They also gained innumerable county offices, such as local prosecutors, judges, assessors and court clerks. The Republicans’ net pickup is probably close to 2,000.
The realignment and consolidation caused by Obama’s reign was cultural, not ideological. Culture, not specific issues, drives political affiliations and voter decisions, and America’s culture is severely polarized, essentially based on geography, education levels, religious affinity, and perceptions of the role of government.
Bill Maher’s HBO panel show "Real Time with Bill Maher" encapsulates the divide. He and some of his guests snidely refer to the Republican Party as the "Stupid Party," and they mercilessly mock the president. There is no sense of finding "common ground," or of "working together." Maher features Republican guest almost every week, but the conservatives, Republicans and Trumpsters are dismissed and reviled as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, war-mongering, bible-thumping, gun-loving cretins. Never is there a thought that they might sincerely believe what they profess. And it’s reciprocal. Rightists dismiss the Democratic leftists and Bernie Sanders socialists as sanctimonious, self-righteous, secularly intolerant, patronizing, ill-informed, pacifistic, and believers in the oxymoron of a benign and paternalistic government that knows what is best for everybody, not to mention rabid environmentalism, which includes a "War on Coal" and opposition to oil self-sufficiency.
The sad part is that, at least in Washington, government is a pretense. There is no connect between what the congressional parties pretend to advocate and what they do, if anything. It’s all about power and majorities. Republicans spent 8 years fervently hoping that Obama would fail, and now Democrats are going to spend 4 years hoping Trump will fail.
On the state level, however, there is no pretense. With the exception of Illinois, state government needs to get things done, and Republicans control the governorship and both chambers of the legislature in 31 of 50 states. They are accountable.
As president, Obama culturally redefined his party, prompting a mass revulsion and a mass exodus of rural whites, particularly in the South. Since 2010, Democrats in the South, defined as the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma, lost 373 legislative seats and 31 congressional seats. Outside of urban and black-majority cities like Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, Birmingham-Montgomery, Louisville, New Orleans-Baton Rouge, Memphis, Nashville, Jackson, Columbia, Richmond, and Texas’ urban cities, there is no Democratic presence, no officeholders, and no bench.
In the rural South, being a Democrat is toxic, almost shameful, and voting for a Democrat for any office, even for Bill Clinton-like good ol’ boys, is almost sinful.
WEST VIRGINIA: Dependent on coal mining, timber harvesting and federal government subsidies, 48 percent rural and 94 percent white, the state has been habitually Democratic since the 1920s. A Republican held the governorship for only 20 of 60 years since 1956, the first Republican senator since 1956 was elected in 2014, and Democrats have controlled the legislature since 1922. Yet Obama’s policies transformed the state into a Republican bastion. Since 2008, Democrats have lost an astounding 48 state legislative seats, which is 48 percent of the seats they once held, all 3 congressional seats, most statewide offices and one senate seat.
Going into 2010, Democrats had 26-8 Senate and 71-29 House majorities. After 2016, Republicans had 21-12 Senate and 63-37 House majorities. The rural areas completely abandoned the Democrats, and Trump won the state in 2016 by 298,741 votes, or 69 percent, with Hillary Clinton getting 26 percent of the vote.
ARKANSAS: Once the lair of Bill and Hill, where the good ol’ boys played, and where First Lady Hillary Rodham became Hillary Clinton after her husband lost the 1980 governor’s race, but came back in 1982, the state surpasses West Virginia in Obama rejection. After 2008, it had two Democratic senators, 3 of 4 congressmen, 27-8 Senate and 72-28 House majorities, and held the governorship and every statewide office. By 2016, the Democrats were utterly obliterated, losing an astounding 54 legislative seats, both U.S. senate seats, all four congressional seats, the governorship and every statewide office.
The state is 46 percent rural and heavily agricultural, and 80 percent white, and they abandoned their ancestral party with cheerful willingness. In 2016, Trump won the Land of Clinton(s) by 299,175 votes, or 60 percent, with Hillary getting 34 percent. The Republicans now have 24-11 Senate and 76-24 House majorities – complete turnaround from 2008. The state’s Democratic party is defunct.
TENNESSEE: This is the Land of Gore, once dominated by Al Gore the Younger, senator from 1984-92, and then vice-president; Al Gore the Elder, senator from 1952-70; and the Memphis Crump Machine. Not anymore. Trump won the state by 650,292 votes, or 61 percent. In 2000, Gore Jr. lost his home state by 80,129 votes, and the Democrats have been unraveling since.
The state is 37 percent rural and 80 percent white – not fertile Democratic ground. After 2008, Democrats still held the governorship, 5 of 9 congressional seats, and the Republicans had narrow 19-14 Senate and 49-47 House majorities. The blowout began in 2010. After 2016, Republicans held the governorship, both senate seats, a 7-2 congressional edge, and 28-5 Senate and 74-25 House majorities – a turnaround of 34 seats. The Party of Gore is the Party of Gone.
KENTUCKY: A pugnaciously partisan state, with tobacco crops, coal mining in the east, and horse farms around Lexington, the state went for Trump by a hefty 574,108 votes, or 63 percent, with Clinton getting just 33 percent. The Trump landslide cost Democrats 18 state House seats, and put them into the minority for the first time since the 1920s. The state now has a Republican governor, two senators, a 5-1 congressional delegation, and 27-11 Senate and 64-36 House majorities – total dominance. After 2008, Republicans were up 20-17 in the Senate and Democrats 64-36 in the House. Democrats have lost 35 legislative seats. Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s base, has gone to the other side.
MISSOURI: Once the state of Harry Truman, it is now lopsidedly Republican, with two Republican senators, a 6-2 congressional delegation, a governor and all statewide officials, and a 24-9 Senate and 116-46 House majority. Rural Missouri is now reliably Republican.
But Democrats have no cause for alarm. There are enough urban liberals to keep them dominant in non-rural states, such as Illinois, California, New York and New England.
ILLINOIS: The state’s politics are sort of like a fungal foot infection – it persists for a long time, is irritating, gets slowly worse, but is not fatal. Clinton won Illinois by 859,319 votes (55 percent) and, unsurprisingly, Democrats swept the senate, comptroller and legislative races. The state’s Republicans got no Obama "bounce" from 2008 onward. Madiganitis prevails. Democrats had a 37-22 Senate and 70-48 House majority after 2008; now it’s 37-22 and 67-51, respectively. Illinois is 15 percent rural, 45 percent suburban and 40 percent urban. Cultural conservatism is dead on arrival.
CALIFORNIA: The biggest electoral prize, with 55 electoral votes, California has become even more monolithically Democratic since the advent of Obama. Despite thousands of acres of truck farms in the east, the state is only 5 percent rural, while the rest is urban and suburban. Republicanism is a disease. Clinton won the state by 2,516,181 votes, or 61 percent, not surpassing Obama’s 3,014,327-vote 2012 win. The state’s white population declined from 73 to 60 percent, according to the 2010 census, while Hispanics are up from 32 to 38 percent, and blacks stagnant at 7 percent. The congressional delegation went from 34-19 to 39-14 Democratic, and the Senate from 23-14 to 27-13 and the House from 50-28 to 55-25. With less than a third of the vote, Republicans cannot stymie any spending or budget thrust. What use are they?
NEW YORK: That Clinton won New York, which is 90 percent urban and suburban, by 1,505,863 votes is not shocking; the last Republican to win was Reagan in 1984. Senator Chuck Schumer (D) won by 2,923,020 votes. Due to a quirk in state law, each chamber to draws its own lines; the 2016 outcome was a 32-31 Senate and a 106-43 House Democratic majority. The Republicans are still in the game. The Democrats’ 27-2 congressional majority after 2008 is now 18-9.
Trump states, like Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Missouri have sizeable Republican legislative majorities and Republican governors. 2018 will be critical, as 2021 redistricting follows the 2020 election and census. Republicans must keep their open-seats.
There may be anti-Trump "resistance" in the streets, but unless Democrats start winning some legislative contests it will be business as usual. Democrats better hope Trump will be their gift that keeps on giving.