The GOP’s Other Takeover

Republicans are about to take control of state legislatures across the land.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell takes a photo with high school Republicans during a campaign rally on Oct. 22, 2014, in Vanceburg, Kentucky.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Forget the U.S. Senate. Even if Republicans seize control of the chamber, their policy-changing prospects will be limited at best. The election night results you should really keep an eye on involve candidates whose names you don’t know in races that rarely, if ever, cross the national radar. These election contests could affect how high your taxes are, whether your neighborhood abortion clinic stays open, and just how much influence unions have in your state. Spoiler: State legislatures matter—a lot.

If there’s one truth of divided government, it’s that the most significant legislative action often happens on the state level instead of in gridlocked Washington. While the U.S. Congress has been bogged down in a morass, state legislatures with single-party rule have been hopping. In the last few years, for instance, the Republicans who control Texas’ legislature and governorship have passed bills banning abortion after 20 weeks, tightening regulations on abortion clinics, reducing the number of required standardized tests for students, running the table on tort reform, and requiring photo ID to vote.

And just like Republicans running for federal office are expecting a wave or wavelet of sorts next week, their state-level counterparts are aiming to take control of a few more legislative chambers—potentially with substantial policy consequences.

Let’s start with Iowa. Though the state’s representation in Congress is perfectly bipartisan—one Republican and one Democratic senator at the moment, as well as two Republicans and two Democrats in the House of Representatives—its statewide government is almost entirely dominated by the GOP. The Republican governor, Terry Branstad, will waltz to re-election, and Republicans have a six-seat majority in the state legislature that they expect to hold comfortably. Democrats still control the state Senate by three seats, but Iowa’s Republican State Leadership Committee is bullish about its prospects of flipping that chamber.

In part, their confidence is spilling over from how much positive attention the party is getting for its other candidates. State Sen. Joni Ernst’s stronger-than-expected campaign to fill the state’s open Senate seat has been a jolt for Iowa Republicans. Some expect having Ernst at the top of the ticket could have a felicitous down-ballot effect on Election Day. Likewise, the number of 2016 presidential contenders schmoozing their way through the state—Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Rick Perry, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, to name a few—is having an energizing effect on the party’s base.

Republicans by no means have the state Senate locked up. But if they win it, the Hawkeye State might look a little more like the Lone Star State. Abortion restrictions, for example, would likely be a top agenda item. Jenifer Bowen, the director of Iowa Right to Life, said state Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal’s refusal to allow votes on pro-life legislation is the main reason Iowa doesn’t have laws barring late-term and telemedicine abortions. “We know Gov. Branstad is eager to sign pro-life legislation,” Bowen said.

If Democrats’ slim margin in the state Senate doesn’t hold up, Branstad will soon have a chance to reach for his pen.

Republicans are also poised to take over the entire state government in Arkansas. They claimed both the state House of Representatives and state Senate in 2012—one of the few bright spots for Republicans on that night—and Republican nominee Asa Hutchinson is likely to defeat Democrat Mike Ross in the contest for the open governorship. Likewise, Republican Rep. Tim Griffin should have no trouble becoming the next lieutenant governor.

Arkansas was one of the last holdouts for Democrats in the South. After next Tuesday, it probably will be no more. And for Arkansans, that likely means one thing: tax cuts. A conservative insider based in Washington with close ties to the state’s Republicans said Hutchinson has been gathering tax-cut ideas and that it’s highly likely the state will shortly get rate-reducing tax reform. If Iowa is poised to look a bit more like Texas, then Arkansas is heading Kansas-ward.

The West Virginia House of Delegates is another chamber that has national Republicans feeling confident this election cycle. That’s because there is a realistic chance that Republicans could hold both chambers of the legislature as well as the governorship in 2016. If that happens, it will probably be bad news for unions, as the kind of tough-on-labor legislation that has passed in Wisconsin and Michigan could be at the top of the docket for Mountain State Republicans.

Another potential historic win that has Republicans keeping their fingers crossed: the Kentucky state House of Representatives. Flipping that chamber wouldn’t have the kind of immediately foreseeable policy consequences as in other states, but it would be a big psychological victory for the GOP; Republicans haven’t held it since before the Great Depression.

So while there will be plenty of buzz this coming Tuesday night about historic wins and game-changing losses in Congress, remember that the contests you hear about least may be the ones that matter most.