State House Sweep

The real Republican revolution


On Election Day, Pennsylvania's Republican Party–with successful Senate candidate Rick Santorum and gubernatorial candidate Tom Ridge at the top of the ticket–padded its lead in the state Senate and came one seat shy of seizing the state House. Then, a week later, Democratic Rep. Tom Stish made a fateful announcement: He was switching to the GOP, giving them a 102-101 edge in the House. Democratic leaders reacted fiercely. "His act was disillusioned and disoriented and disgraceful," Pennsylvania House Speaker H. William DeWeese fumed, obviously feeling dissed himself. "He has spit upon democracy and his constituents."

Legislative chambers across the country are hearing echoes of DeWeese's vitriol as longtime Democratic power brokers are forced to adjust painfully to the idea of riding the back bench for at least the next two or four years. They understand something the national media apparently don't. Republican gains in state and local offices could prove as significant as the party's gains in Congress. Indeed, the former are crucial to the latter in the long run.

Legislatures are, among other things, places for parties to train and groom future candidates for higher office. The Democratic Party's control over the majority of legislative chambers for most of the past 40 years (and, in the South, since Reconstruction) is an important reason for the Democratic Party's control of Congress during the same period. Democrats like government at all levels, and that enthusiasm has translated into better candidates, whatever you think of their agendas.

Republicans, in contrast, have typically been weak congressional candidates. Since they don't like government and prefer to make money in private pursuits, they've come into the political arena with liabilities. Some have simply been cranks, running in previously safe Democratic seats. Even those with experience in the state legislature have so often been in the minority, with little to do but show up and vote "no," that they might as well be political novices.

OK, this year that didn't stop many GOP candidates from winning. But if Republicans are to retain majority status on Capitol Hill, they'll have to get re-elected in years without quite so sharply drawn philosophical differences and without Bill Clinton's face to play with in campaign ads. Judging from previous crops of Republican candidates, this could be a challenge. They've often not dealt well with the media, they've been lesser known in their own states, and they haven't been as good on the stump. These shortcomings will fade only with political experience.

Republicans are going to gain plenty of that in state legislatures from now on. The numbers are shocking. In November, voters awarded Republicans a net gain of 459 seats in state legislatures. The Democrats now control a total of 48 legislative chambers, while the Republicans control 47 (three are tied). Before the election, Democrats enjoyed a 64-to-31 edge. Overall, Democrats hold 3,846 seats and Republicans hold 3,491.

The South was particularly hospitable to Republican candidates in 1994. Most ran anti-tax, anti-big government, pro-term limits campaigns in districts made more winnable for the GOP by race-based redistricting. One-fifth of the Republican legislative gains were made in the South; that figure is actually low, because one or both legislative chambers in Mississippi, Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina weren't up for re-election in 1994. If they had been, the Democratic bloodbath would have been far worse.

Republicans also made significant legislative gains in Midwestern states, taking control of lower chambers in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and upper chambers in the Dakotas. In the West, Republicans gained seven seats to reach parity with Democrats in the California Assembly, claimed both chambers in Alaska, and the Senates in Montana and Oregon.

The GOP made its single biggest legislative gain in North Carolina, where Republicans haven't held significant legislative power since General Sherman's troops were camped outside the state capital. A total of 38 seats were wrested from the Democrats–13 in the Senate, leaving a one-vote Democratic majority (as of December, amid rumblings of possible party switching) and 25 in the House, leaving a new 67-53 Republican majority. The seismic shift of political power in Raleigh had immediate aftershocks; the morning after the election, some Republican legislators have told me, their answering machines were already filled with messages from well-wishing lobbyists who had previously never given Republicans the time of day.

Another huge Republican victory was Washington, where they gained 25 seats to control the House for the first time in 12 years. In the state Senate, Republicans lost control in 1992 but picked up two seats in 1994 and are now a seat away from parity. Richard Davis, president of the Washington State Research Council (WSRC) in Olympia, says that the elections were in effect "a referendum on the two years of government" under a liberal Democratic governor and Democratic legislature. As on the national level, not a single Republican incumbent in Washington lost.

Both the North Carolina and Washington legislative campaigns focused primarily on taxes. In North Carolina, the legislature had managed to spend more than $1 billion in so-called surplus revenue in 1994 without so much as a dollar of tax relief. In Washington, $600 million in general fund tax hikes in 1993–plus millions more in taxes to fund a Clinton-style health care reform–energized small-business people and average taxpayers into active, intense opposition. In both states, Republican legislative candidates ran on contracts, similar to the celebrated Contract With America for congressional candidates, that included promises of tax cuts, welfare reform, regulatory reform, and market-oriented health-care reform.

Two successful U.S. House candidates in Washington cut their teeth as state legislators pushing tax relief, demonstrating the farm-team aspect of legislative service. In the previous two years, Linda Smith authored a tax-limitation measure in the state Senate while Randy Tate introduced a tax cut in the state House. Both gained statewide attention for those tax measures, WSRC President Davis says, giving them an edge in their challenges to Democratic congressional incumbents.

North Carolina's new State Rep. Larry Linney, a black Republican elected in part on a school-choice platform, is already being talked about for the 11th Congressional District in 1996, now represented by likely gubernatorial candidate Charles Taylor. In the future, more polished Republican candidates–seasoned from a term or two in a legislative majority–will run for Congress across the country, and many will win.

The other reason Republican gains in state legislatures matter is that the new Republican-dominated Congress seems likely to shift significant responsibilities (accompanied by grants or tax cuts) from Washington to state capitals. Increasingly, states are going to be calling the shots on issues ranging from welfare reform and health care to property rights and tort reform. State legislatures might also be voting on a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.

Since most Republican candidates in 1994 ran on a market-friendly platform, this is clearly good news for taxpayers, workers, and consumers. But it's also good news for Republican governors with reformist inclinations, such as Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and John Engler in Michigan. Each will now have Republican majorities in both legislative chambers, after GOP takeovers in the Wisconsin Assembly and the Michigan House. The opportunity for serious innovation and experimentation in those states–already free-market idea factories–has never been greater.

So what made the Republicans winners in legislative elections in 1994? Obviously, the Clinton factor and the Foley/Rostenkowski factor worked in their favor, but that doesn't tell the whole story. After all, Democrats have had problems at the top of the ticket before–notably in 1978, 1980, and 1988–without taking as big a bath in state and local races.

Looking closely at election results and public-opinion polls, you can't help but conclude that a true realignment based on issues may be in the offing. "Republican gains this year aren't just a blip on the screen," says William C. Binning, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University in Ohio. In his own state, Binning predicts that even if Clinton carries Ohio in the 1996 presidential race, Democrats will claw back only one congressional seat and few legislative seats. Up and down the ballot, he says, the GOP "will remain a majority or competitive party."

Ideologically, Republican legislative gains represent a victory for numerous organizations, think tanks, and activists organized in the past few years to combat government expansion. The term-limits movement, the "wise-use" and property-rights movements, taxpayer associations, gun-rights organizations, and the rejuvenated small-business lobby all helped provide Republican candidates with issues, foot soldiers, and momentum. The state free-market think tank movement, with which I am involved, also provided crucial intellectual ammunition to victorious candidates, as did the handful of national organizations–such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Reason Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)–that have done serious work on state policy in recent years. A sign of the times: Rep. Harold Brubaker, the new speaker of the house in North Carolina, is also chairman of ALEC this year.

Of course it's possible that voters, ever fickle, will decide they didn't really want limited government after all and vote in new, smooth-talking demagogues promising new government programs in 1996. But it seems more likely that Bill Kristol, the GOP's new quotemeister, was right on election night when he told ABC's Ted Koppel, "It's a new era in American politics." Kristol wasn't talking about Congress. He was talking about state and local races. That's where lasting political eras, rather than short-lived political fashions, are born.

Contributing Editor John Hood is on leave from the John Locke Foundation, a state think tank in North Carolina, and is currently a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.