The Fruits of One-Party Rule

by Jeremy Loudenback

It’s no secret that the polarization of the American political system has grown increasingly more pronounced in recent memory. And it’s not just limited to anecdotal evidence: 36 states are now dominated by a single political party, the highest number in 60 years. Republicans control 23 states (meaning possession of both state legislature and the governor’s office), while the Democrats hold 13.

While Washington D.C. has long been ground zero for problems associated with partisan-related politics, including last-year’s government shutdown, there are many indications that the lines of battle are now being drawn in state capitols. A nifty New York Times article from this past week demonstrates how differences in the political parties may lead to substantially different approaches to governance at the state level.

Separated by the St. Louis River, Duluth, MN, and Superior, WI, are collectively known as the Twin Ports. Traditionally the cities have shared working-class sensibilities, demographics, cultural similarities, and frequent trips across the bridge for work and recreation, but in recent years, the differences are starting to seem more salient. After Wisconsin Republicans claimed a state-wide majority in the 2010 elections, the Democrats followed suit in 2012 in Minnesota, and since then the neighboring states are a study in strikingly divergent and aggressive policy agendas.

In 2013, Wisconsin’s lawmakers cut income taxes. They approved an expansion of school vouchers. They passed a requirement, portions of which are now being contested in court, that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that women seeking abortions get ultrasounds…In Minnesota, lawmakers sent more money to public schools, raised income taxes on the highest earners, increased the tax on cigarettes and voted to add new business taxes.

The ability to more easily legislate a set of policy interests into law has been greatly aided by single-party rule. In California, a Democratic supermajority passed an prolific set of legislation for 2014, a far cry from the legislative gridlock and budget failures that characterized the statehouse just a few years back. But since coming to single-party rule with the help of a new redistricting law, Democrats have been able to successfully grapple with controversial policy issues. For example, California was able to move on immigration issues, a topic that remains notably unresolved at the federal level. A dozen new immigration-related laws were signed into law for 2014, highlighted by the ordinance that allows driving licenses for undocumented immigrants.

While in some states, political partisanship has been driven by demographic changes, economic shifts, and healthcare-related issues, there are indications that a new brand of contentious politics isn’t the only feature of Beltway politics moving to statehouses. Increasingly sophisticated campaigning, work with political action committees, and byzantine campaign donation arrangements are now being utilized by political strategists seeking advantages at the state level. Strategic allocation of campaign funds, including shifting larger amounts of national money and attention to local races, seems to have played a big part in cultivating a broader palette of political partisanship. With another round of elections on the way later this year, including gubernatorial elections in 36 states, the local color of state politics will be drawing more scrutiny than ever before.