Purple reversion? Three questions about the 2014 elections and federalism

The rise of one-party statehouse rule was widely documented following the 2012 election cycle. After the 2000 elections, only 21 states were under the sole control of Democrats or Republicans. Now 37 are.

The cause of this development was states catching up with national political trends. Mississippi hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976 but the GOP did not fully take over the state legislature until 2012. Increased policy experimentation was the effect of a less purple America. Unencumbered by the need to compromise on specifics, officials in the executive and legislative branches moved in more definitively red or blue directions on minimum wage, taxes, K-12 and many other issues.

Some lamented this great policy sort as evidence of heightened polarization. Others heralded it as federalism in action.

The 2014 election cycle is the first major election cycle since 2012, which raises three questions.

Redder, bluer or back to purple? A slight purple reversion appears at least as possible as even-more-one-party-dominance. By this point, there are only two statehouses that “should” have a different partisan makeup: Arkansas and West Virginia, which Republicans don’t yet hold despite the states going hard (60 plus percent) for Romney in 2012. Three two-party states have 2014 gubernatorial elections classified as “toss ups” or “leaning”: New Mexico, Arkansas and Maine. They could turn all red or all blue. (Data source for all calculations here.) 

But there’s an equal chance that some now-one-party states will become purple. In several one-party states, the dominant party’s gubernatorial candidate looks vulnerable (“toss up” or “leaning”) but the party holds an at least 60 percent majority in both legislative chambers (Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Georgia, Florida, Ohio). Such states are more likely to go purple than flip. And a couple presently “one party” states are battleground states, where the legislative majorities are thin (Colorado, Pennsylvania). They could theoretically (a) flip, so no net gain in one party control nationwide, or (b) go purple, offsetting any movement from divided to one-party elsewhere on the map.

What will happen with state legislatures? Good polling data is impossible to come by. But, in terms of 2014′s policy consequences, what happens with the legislatures is of greater importance than governorships. Even when they’re from the same party as the governor, legislative leaders tend to have their own ideas about whether policy agendas should be sped up or slowed down. Also, governors come and go. Being politically stickier, even in the 15 states with term limits, legislatures exert more longterm influence over states’ political and policy characters.

More legislative gridlock? Divided control of the upper and lower legislative chambers has been a common feature of the national political landscape for decades, but it’s rare at the state level. Only Kentucky, Iowa and New Hampshire have split legislatures; New York and Washington are practically split due to special bipartisan power-sharing arrangements. In 18 state legislative chambers nationwide, majorities hold less than 55 percent of the seats. It may not take more than a scandal or two to complicate the great red-state-blue-state policy experiment.

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