Minnesota Republicans aren’t the only ones patting themselves on the back for taking control of the state House — national Republican groups count the state GOP’s win in November as part of a watershed victory for Republicans in state legislatures across the country.
It’s not surprising that legislative victories were overshadowed by GOP gains in Congress this cycle. But the scale of the victory in terms of state legislative seats might be more impressive: Republicans now control 4,100 out of 7,383 seats across the nation, or 56 percent. That’s their highest level since 1920, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NSCL), when a Jazz Age economic boom led to historic numbers of Republicans elected to legislatures.
Republicans are also at a high watermark in terms of control of legislative chambers: the Minnesota House was one of nine chambers that flipped to give the GOP control 69 of 99 legislative bodies across the nation, the most ever for the party. Republicans held 32 governorships in the late 1990s, but they controlled dramatically fewer legislative seats then than they do now.
The chambers that flipped alongside Minnesota this fall: the Colorado Senate, the Maine Senate, the New Hampshire House, the New Mexico House and both chambers in Nevada and West Virginia. Republicans also gained an outright majority — versus working majorities that were formed by alliances between Democrats and Republicans — in both the New York and Washington Senate chambers.
“Minnesota, in many ways, was emblematic of what happened across the nation this election cycle,” said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), an umbrella organization under the national GOP that aims to elect down-ballot, state-level Republican lawmakers. “It’s a state that has gone back and forth with leadership in the Legislature and there was a very clear choice between a new vision that Kurt Daudt and the Republicans were advocating for in contrast to a completely DFL-held government.”
It’s part of a trend in purplish states that’s seen parties and outside groups shifting their focus on winning legislative seats. In Minnesota this cycle, Republican groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce poured millions into House races and mostly stayed out of statewide races on the ticket. And with increasing partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., voters are looking more to their state lawmakers to make policy changes, Walter said.
“[Legislatures] are quite different from Congress, and in many respects a direct contrast to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “There is an increasing level of interest from voters because they know state governments have a tremendous impact on their lives, from the moment they wake up to the movement they go to sleep. The good developments are now coming from bottom up.”
Minnesota saw a decidedly rural takeover in the House — 10 out of the 11 pickups this fall were in rural districts — but across the country, results were more mixed between rural and suburban areas, and Republicans even picked up some seats in small to mid-sized urban areas in other states, Walter said. Much of that result can be attributed to particularly strong candidate recruitment in states where they had major pickups, noting that Minnesota House Republicans recruited strong candidates in several rural and outstate districts like Albert Lea and St. Cloud.
Pennsylvania House Speaker Sam Smith, the outgoing chair of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (RLCC), said Republican state legislative candidates did benefit late in the game from national political winds, particularly President Barack Obama’s low approval rating.
“We did get a little benefit at the national level with the Obama administration’s indifference to the Ebola situation late in the summer [and] their indifference to the economy,” he said. “I call it, ‘The Washington knows best’ mindset.”
What does that mean in terms of policy changes in Minnesota and other states where the GOP made legislative gains? Walter ticked off a number of areas of focus: job growth, easing “burdensome regulations,” reforming states’ education systems and pension reform.
And for those hoping for quieter campaigns seasons in Minnesota in the future, well, sorry: competitive Minnesota legislative races are not going away. “Minnesota is a very, very interesting barometer in terms of where politics are in the U.S., one that people have increasingly been looking at because of the swings in recent years and dynamics going on,” Walter said. “I anticipate that will continue on into future cycles.”