The Long Tail of 2010: Why Michigan Republicans Can Get Away With Their Last-Minute Anti-Labor Push

Democrats outside of Michigan are panicking about the state GOP’s post-election rush to pass “right to work” legislation. They’re panicking because they can see the future. Thanks to two structural factors – one ongoing, one more of a fluke – they’re likely to be fighting rearguard battles against state Republican legislatures for the next eight years.

The two factors, to keep it simple:

- The long-time-coming Republican realignment of white Southerners and Appalachian voters.

- The 2010 Tea Party wave.

In 2010, Republicans won a majority of state legislative seats across America for the first time ever. In the South, they strengthened their holds on states like Texas and Georgia, and gained control in North Carolina. In the Midwest, they canceled out the Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008 and installed Republican governors. The result: They got to re-map every legislative district, from Congress on down to the state assemblies.

What did it do for them? Start with Michigan. The 2012 election represented a big comeback for federal Democrats. Barack Obama won the state – Mitt Romney’s birthplace – by nearly 10 points, and 450,000 votes. Sen. Debbie Stabenow humiliated former Rep. Pete Hoesktra, winning re-election by 21 points and nearly 1 million votes. The white flight counties of Oakland and Macomb, where the Reagan Republicans were born, fell to Obama and Stabenow.

But down the ballot, in districts newly redrawn by the 2010 freshman Republicans, Democrats got squeezed out. They will hold only five of 14 congressional seats in the next Congress; they realistically could have maxed out at six. (The first district, which covers the upper peninsula, should be winnable for them.) They’ll hold only 51 of 110 state House seats, which actually represents an uptick from the 2010 disaster.

It was the same in other Midwestern/rust belt states controlled by Republicans. Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 7 points, but Republicans dominated the new maps, gaining one seat in the Assembly and two in the Senate. In Ohio (Obama by 3), Republicans gained one seat in the House and held their Senate supermajority. In Pennsylvania, Democrats won every statewide office, but gained only two House seats and three Senate seats. That 27-23 lead in the Senate is just large enough for Republicans to seriously threaten electoral college reform next year. Oh, and in Illinois, run by Democrats during the 2011 redistricting? Democrats now have swollen majorities in the House and Senate.

On to the South and Appalachia. The redistricting powers from 2010 were less relevant Republicans in those states. The new maps allowed them to build on their demographic gains, as white voters finally figured out that a genetic dislike for William Tecumseh Sherman wasn’t a good reason to vote Democratic. In Georgia and Tennessee, Republicans controlled the remapping process and gained House/Senate supermajorities. In Arkansas, they narrowly flipped the House and handily gained the Senate. In West Virginia, they cut Democrats to their smallest majorities in decades.

How much did these two factors affect the results? Outside the reddening deep South/Appalachia, the parties’ gains in state legislatures basically synced up with the presidential vote. Democrats ended Republican supermajorities in Arizona, where nonpartisan commissions drew new districts. They gained seats in New York, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oregon, where split party control meant that the maps couldn’t be tweaked to any great benefit until Barack Obama and his coattails came through. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Utah, the Dakotas, and Wyoming, Republicans reduced Democratic legislators to extinction levels.

Welcome to the next eight years. The incentive to push through your party’s dream legislation is extremely high; the downside is lower than ever.