Divided government still rules in the nation’s capital after Tuesday’s vote, but unity is increasingly the name of the game in Annapolis, Topeka, Concord, Little Rock and other capital cities.
In a little-noticed footnote to the elections, votes to fill legislative seats produced the highest number of states with one-party rule in 60 years. Democrats or Republicans now have sole control of the governorship and both legislative chambers in 37 state capitals.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks party representation in the country’s 50 state governments, Democrats now control all three bases of power — the governorship and both houses of the state legislature — in 14 states and Republicans in 23, with only 12 states sharing power. Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is considered nonpartisan.
Regional power bases also are emerging, with Democrats increasingly dominating state governments in New England.
Conversely, the GOP for the first time since 1872 now will control the Arkansas House and Senate. Just 20 years ago, Republicans didn’t have a majority in a single legislative house in the states of the old Confederacy; now they will control all 11.
The number of states with divided government is down from 31 just 16 years ago to 12 today, prompting speculation about the country’s evolving partisan geography.
“I think it is a reflection of a growing ‘sorting-out’ of our population — where people live — and our politics,” said Karl Kurtz, a political scientist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “They tend to go all the same way for governor, for legislator and — for that matter — for president.”
Bill Bishop, author of the book “The Big Sort” about the growing polarization of American politics, said, “There are more states that have tipped either increasingly Republican or Democratic over time. Even in close elections you have a majority of voters who live in counties where the election wasn’t close at all. The world they see at their doorstep is different than the rest of the country.”
With state legislatures often seen by the parties as the “farm team” for recruiting national candidates, Republican and Democratic party officials were trying to spin the results of last week’s voting in their favor. Republicans scored stunning state-level gains in the 2010 wave, which also brought them control of the U.S. House of Representatives. This year, the results were far more mixed.
Democrats reclaimed majorities they had lost in 2010 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the Minnesota House and Senate. They also took control of the Colorado House, the Oregon House, the Maine House and Senate and the New York Senate, for a total of eight pickups.
In addition to the Arkansas sweep, Republicans could point to only one other pickup, but it was a satisfying one: the Wisconsin state Senate, where Democrats held a brief majority as a result of a number of recall elections this summer. GOP officials said the final tally was not as bad as it could have been, considering the defeat of Mitt Romney and the party’s weak showing in U.S. Senate races.
“Clearly, [Election Day] was not what Republicans were hoping for, but we remain encouraged by the successes seen at the state level across the country,” Republican State Leadership Committee President Chris Jankowski said in a statement as the final returns were rolling in.
“One thing remains clear — Republicans are the dominant party in the states holding a majority of state legislatures, governorships, lieutenant governorships, secretaries of state and half of the nation’s attorneys general.”
In one bright note for Republicans, the party added one net governorship to its total, with 30 GOP governors nationwide to 19 Democrats. Rhode Island’s governor is an independent.
But Michael Sargeant, Mr. Jankowski’s counterpart at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, noted that in addition to flipping eight state legislative bodies, Democrats gained seats in 40 chambers overall and obtained veto-proof supermajorities in California and Illinois.
“From Maine to Hawaii, Democratic candidates simply did a better job talking to voters and addressing issues that are important to working families,” said Mr. Sargeant, noting that Republicans had been projecting net gains at the state level going into the election.
One-party dominance can have direct policy consequences. States such as Florida and Pennsylvania with GOP dominance of the governorship and state legislature have been at the forefront of efforts to impose more stringent voter-ID laws in recent years, while states where Democrats dominate, such as Maryland and Massachusetts, have led the way on legalizing gay marriage.
Party ticket loyalty at the state level could be a trickle-down effect from Washington’s increasingly partisan politics, observers say. But governing as a state legislator is very different from working at the federal level, said Tim Storey, elections analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“At a time when D.C. is frozen and in gridlock, legislators have to get stuff done. They have to balance their budget, and to do that they have to compromise. [Partisan division] may be how voters vote, but it’s not how legislators legislate,” Mr. Storey said.
Mr. Storey pointed to states such as Oregon, where the legislature had a productive year despite a House where the parties were tied and a closely divided Senate.
“For the most part, these folks are hard-wired to get stuff done,” he said. “What happens to them from the time they leave their state capital to the time they get to Washington mystifies us.”