Washington (AFP) – With conservative moves to restrict abortion and voting rights dominating headlines, an outsider might be forgiven for thinking it was Republicans, not Democrats, who run Washington.
But the most important elections of 2020 probably weren’t for who would take the White House or Congress — it was the battle for control of America’s state houses.
“The Republicans have been especially good at winning state legislative elections,” Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University, told AFP.
“They smartly focused time, money and energy into winning the House of Representatives back in 2010, and state legislatures.”
In that year alone, she said, Republicans picked up more than 600 seats, eventually amassing a nationwide lead of almost 1,100 seats.
While control of the executive and legislative branches might seem like the endgame in US politics, Americans’ happiness and prosperity depends as much on what happens in state capitols as in the US capital.
Republican legislatures have wielded state power with alacrity in recent weeks, passing a barrage of what opponents characterize as voter suppression bills, while Texas just signed strict measures into law that essentially amount to a total ban on abortion.
Critics expect the eventual outcome of the laws, which are seen spreading across numerous red states, to be wide disparities in access to services from one part of the United States to the next.
“Federalism has always produced stark inequality in the arena of civil rights and voting, and again now with restrictions on abortions,” said Schiller.
“In some cases the federal government has been able to prevail, but unlike civil rights and voting, abortion has not produced the same level of national consensus in favor of increased access.”
When they ratified the Constitution, states agreed the federal government would have responsibility for two dozen or so national and international issues, while all other duties would be discharged locally.
“So the 10th Amendment provides a great amount of latitude and protection of individual states to make their own legislative and legal decisions that may be starkly different from Washington,” Capri Cafaro, of American University’s School of Public Affairs, told AFP.
These days the federal government’s exclusive responsibilities include coining money, regulating the mail, declaring war and conducting other foreign policy.
It is states, though, that are charged with ensuring the welfare, safety and health of their citizens, taking responsibility for most public services and running elections.
Democrats acknowledge that in recent years they have been much more focused on winning the presidency and controlling Congress while being outgunned in grassroots funding and organization.
As a result, the Republicans have control of the House and Senate — or the single chamber — in 31 of America’s 50 states.
The Texas abortion law, a dramatic escalation of the campaign to undo Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure nationwide, flies in the face of public opinion.
Polls consistently show that over half of Americans believe abortion should be legal all or most of the time.
Balance of power
“If we do not defend our Democratic majorities and invest in Democratic power, progress on reproductive rights can and will be lost,” Heather Williams, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
US states are currently redrawing their legislative districts in a constitutionally required process that will determine the balance of power in state capitols and Washington for the next 10 years.
In most states, legislators meet to come up with the new maps of congressional districts after the census.
As a result, redistricting can be as important to the balance of power in the US House of Representatives as the parties’ performances in elections.
Most political analysts agree that Republicans — known in Washington as the Grand Old Party, or GOP — have a clear advantage.
They control mapmaking in 20 out of the 35 states with multiple congressional seats and legislatures that are in charge of the process. Democrats control just 11.
But for all the emphasis on local politics, the state houses need the White House as much as the White House needs the states, according to Schiller, the Brown University professor.
“The GOP has moved well beyond its traditional message that the federal government is too big, to a message that the federal government is bad overall,” she said.
“Anything federal is bad for states according to the GOP, except of course when it comes to disaster aid, which GOP governors take readily and without objection.”