After record gains in the last several years, the GOP knew it was in for “a stiff challenge” this fall, in the words of Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. Republicans still have a few more chambers they can flip. There’s the Kentucky House, one of the final Democratic bastions in the South. And they have a shot to take the state Senate in Connecticut, where the unpopularity of Governor Dannel Malloy could be a drag on Democratic candidates. But mostly they will be trying to defend the majorities they have recently claimed, particularly in the blue and purple states surrounding the Great Lakes.
Like many Republican officials these days, Walter was none too eager to discuss Trump’s candidacy or the impact it might have on the party’s down-ballot candidates. When I asked him if the GOP would stand a better chance of holding onto their state legislative majorities if the party had picked someone else as its presidential nominee, Walter simply replied: “That’s not the reality we live in.”
The GOP is urging its candidates to ignore the national environment as much as possible and focus on local issues—an approach that parties with an unpopular leader have tried, with little apparent success, for decades. “Our advice to our candidates is always to run your own race, not to get distracted by other races, other environmental factors that are beyond your control,” Walter said.
The issues that animate state legislative campaigns are naturally different from those that dominate the presidential election, but historically, “the top of the ticket in the presidential race does tend to have coattails in the legislatures,” said Louis Jacobson, who handicaps legislative elections for Governing Magazine and is a co-author of the 2016 Almanac of American Politics. “But,” he added, “this is a quirky enough political year that I think you have to be more cautious.”
If Trump does not reverse his slide in the polls, Republicans could decide to redirect resources in an effort to save their majorities in Congress and the state legislatures. And they are banking on voters choosing to split their ticket even if they can’t support Trump for president. Walter pointed to a recent Gallup finding that voters felt considerably more favorable about their local governments than the federal government—a result that could benefit Republican incumbents at the state level. “Many more of the impactful decision governments makes in people’s lives are happening in the state capitals, and they’re happening in their localities. They’re not happening in far-off Washington, D.C.,” Walter said. “What we’re seeing as a long-term trend is a greater understanding, a greater appreciation, greater respect for the government closest to the people.”
The stakes for control of state governments are all the higher because unlike Congress, legislatures outside Washington have been hotbeds of activity rather than gridlock. Republicans have used their power in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Ohio to pass strict voter-ID laws (some of which have been challenged or halted by the courts) and in some states have chosen to block expansions of Medicaid under Obamacare. Democrats say that victories in November could allow them to raise the minimum wage and enact automatic voter registration in additional states, and approve measures to mandate equal pay for women, combat climate change, and tighten gun-control laws. And if they can break up one-party Republican rule in other states, they can stop conservatives from passing so-called “pre-emption bills” that restrict progressive city governments from taking action on those issues.