States choose own paths with one-party governments

© Steven Pavlov / lovingwa.blogspot.com / CC-BY-3.0

California state capitol building in Sacramento, California, March 23, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • Looking back from 2014, we will have had two-party government for most of the preceding two decades.

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  • Starting next month, Americans in 25 states will have Republican governors and Republicans in control of both houses.

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  • What’s striking now is the wide margins in legislatures for one party or the other in state after state.

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In Washington, Americans have two-party government, with a Democratic president and Senate and a Republican House. We had it before November's election and will have it again for the next two years.

Looking back from 2014, we will have had two-party government for most of the preceding two decades, for six years of Bill Clinton's presidency, three and a half years of George W. Bush's and four years of Barack Obama's.

But in most of the 50 states, American voters seem to have opted for something very much like one-party government.

Starting next month, Americans in 25 states will have Republican governors and Republicans in control of both houses of the state legislatures. They aren't all small states either. They include about 53 percent of the nation's population.

At the same time, Americans in 15 states will have Democratic governors and Democrats in control of both houses of the state legislatures. They include about 37 percent of the nation's population.

That leaves only 10 percent in states in which neither party is in control.

The Republican edge is largely a result of the Republican trend in 2009 and 2010. Normally you would expect the Democrats to recoup and shift the balance the next time they have a good off-year. Maybe they will in 2014.

But what's striking now is the wide margins in legislatures for one party or the other in state after state -- most of them, in fact.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans will have more than 60 percent of the members of both legislative houses in 17 states (Nebraska has a single nonpartisan legislature). And in nine more states they'll have 60 percent of the members of one house plus a majority in the other and the governorship.

Democrats will have 60-plus percent of both houses in 11 states, and in two more they will have 60 percent in one house, a majority in the other plus the governorship.

This is true even in presidential target states. The Ohio Senate will be 23-10 Republican, the Florida House 74-46 Republican.

This trend to one-party control seems likely to have two consequences, one of interest to political scientists and pundits and the other to the larger public.

Pundits and political scientists will start to identify the chief conflicts being played out not so much in battles between the two parties -- like the struggle over public employee bargaining in Wisconsin -- but increasingly within the parties.

We've already seen examples of this. The key event in Kansas politics this year was the defeat of moderate state senators by Republicans in the August primary. The November election was irrelevant.

This is reminiscent of the one-party politics in the Old South, in which victory in the Democratic primary was, according to the political cliche, "tantamount to victory."

Political junkies may want to dust off their copies of political scientist V.O. Key's classic "Southern Politics in State and Nation," first published in 1949, which showed how each Southern state had its own particular brand of one-party politics.

For the national public, one-party Democratic and one-party Republican states provide a look at how each party governs -- and the results.

In California, voters just gave Democrats two-thirds majorities in both houses and a tax increase as well. We'll see if their policies help California reduce its dismally high unemployment and resolve its enormous pension underfunding.

In Illinois, Democrats won again, despite increasing the state income tax from 3 to 5 percent in 2011, after which the state's unemployment rate went up while unemployment declined in neighboring states. Democrat Michael Madigan has been speaker of the Illinois House for 28 of the last 30 years.

Many Republican governors and legislatures have gone in another direction, holding down spending increases and seeking to cut taxes or hold rates even rather than raise them.

Texas' low taxes (no income tax) and light regulation have been followed by some of the most robust job creation in the nation. Texas' population grew so rapidly in the last decade that it gained four U.S. House seats from the 2010 census.

No-income-tax Florida gained two seats, and no other state gained more than one. California, for the first time in its history, gained none.

States are laboratories of democracy, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote. Citizens of every state can monitor their experiments and judge which set of one-party states is getting better results.

Michael Barone,The Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at [email protected] His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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