State Watch

Data points to how GOP has built a lasting edge in state governments

A supporter of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin listens to remarks about his education agenda during an event at Eva Walker Park in Warrenton, Va., on Thursday, October 14, 2021.
Greg Nash

A new survey finds that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to see state legislatures as the battlegrounds for America’s most divisive issues — a trend that could be helping the GOP advance its agenda.

The survey, conducted for The States Project, a progressive group that supports Democratic candidates for state legislative seats, found that Democrats are far more likely to see Congress as the key battleground for such issues.

Asked which decision makers are the most responsible for decisions about voting and election rules, Republicans split, with 41 percent saying state lawmakers and an equal number saying the U.S. Congress, .

In comparison, 50 percent of Democrats said Congress makes the most difference on voting and election, compared to just 24 percent who pointed to state lawmakers having the most power.

On abortion rights, Republicans are almost evenly divided between Congress as the key driver of policy, 41 percent, and the states as the focal point, 39 percent. But again, more Democrats see Congress as supreme, 51 percent, as do those who say the states hold the responsibility, 29 percent.

A little more than a third of Republicans, 36 percent, say state lawmakers have the most responsibility when it comes to issues of gun violence prevention, while just 20 percent of Democrats said the same. Almost half of Democrats, 49 percent, said Congress is where gun policy is most set, compared with just 34 percent of Republicans.

Simone Leiro, a spokeswoman for The States Project, said the data reflects the growing knowledge among Republicans that they have the ability to set an agenda at the state level — where the GOP controls far more legislatures than do Democrats — even if Democrats control the levers of power in Washington.

“Congress is an ineffective last line of defense when the real agenda is being written in state legislatures,” Leiro said in an interview this week. “The right wing knows the power of states, and for far too long Democrats have overlooked and under invested in winning at the state level.”

Though Democrats control Congress and the White House, Republicans at the state level this year have advanced new restrictions on voting rights and abortion access while eliminating rules on gun ownership and the ability to carry concealed firearms. Congress has remained deadlocked on each of those areas.

“We have seen a focus from Democrats on national politics, and of course that’s going to trickle down to the voter themselves. So it’s not a coincidence that we’ve seen a much more heightened focus on the federal level, and voters think the federal level can make these calls,” Leiro said.

Republicans say the history of the last several decades are responsible for their party’s larger focus on state-level politics. At a time when Republicans felt stuck at the federal level, when Bill Clinton entered the White House, a new generation of Republicans emerged to become the face of the party.

“Starting with the late ‘90s, our Republican governors were the stars of the party. George W. Bush became the president and filled his cabinet with Republican governors,” said Chris Jankowski, a GOP strategist who formerly headed the Republican State Leadership Committee. “It has been a 20-year progression.”

When Barack Obama held the White House, a midterm “shellacking,” as he called it, in the 2010 elections put Republicans in charge of most state legislatures — an advantage they have yet to surrender. That edge has helped Republicans advance policy even as Washington grinds to a halt.

“Making state-by-state policy gains for pro-lifers is meaningful. To the Democrats, they have to protect their right to abortion on a national level, or it’s meaningless. Same with gun rights,” Jankowski said.

Democrats have long struggled to make their allies care about state legislative elections, including their largest donors, some of whom have overlooked local elections in favor of the allure of winning the presidency.

“It certainly is an educational gap and a challenge,” said Christina Polizzi, national press secretary at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which spends on state-level elections. “These state houses make up the policies that are going to have the biggest impact on your day to day life.”

Once sleepy backwaters left to the whims of local party organizations, both Democrats and Republicans have professionalized campaign committees — the DLCC on the left, the RSLC on the right — aimed at influencing local elections.

The theory they pitch to donors is largely the same: Legislators draw congressional map lines, giving them an outsized influence on the shape of Congress, and they serve as the bench from which tomorrow’s leaders will be called.

The difference, the polling suggests, is that Republican voters are more likely to see states as a critical avenue to success.

“We see from the polling that the right wing knows the power of states, and that means that they’re setting the agenda until Democrats wake up and stop overlooking and under investing in winning at the state level,” Leiro said.

The poll, conducted by the Democratic firm Data for Progress, surveyed 1,194 likely voters between February 23-25. The survey carried a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton State legislatures

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