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Lou Cannon: Voters Elect Republicans But Display Independence on Ballot Measures

Beneath the crest of the mighty wave that carried Republicans to a near high-water mark in the nation’s statehouses, voters in 2014 displayed an independence that ran against the grain of GOP victories.

For Republicans, Nov. 4, 2014, was a banner day. The GOP took control of the Senate, widened its comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, captured 11 state legislative chambers previously controlled by Democrats and won four additional governorships while losing only one.

Republicans now hold both state legislative houses in 30 states, their highest number since the 1920 elections ushered in a period of GOP dominance after World War I. They have a 31-18 edge over Democrats in governorships, with an independent elected in Alaska by a razor-thin margin.

The election left Democrats in control of both legislative chambers in only 11 states, their worst standing since 1860 before the Civil War. Eight legislatures have divided partisan control. Nebraska, unicameral and nonpartisan, is Republican in all but name.

But while voters were delivering legislatures to Republicans, they largely ignored the GOP party line — or any party line—-- on ballot measures. Voters passed 15 bond issues in five states, raised the minimum wage in four states and advised that it be increased in another, approved environmental measures in seven states, legalized recreational use of marijuana in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia, and sanctioned background checks of gun buyers in Washington, where a deadly school shooting occurred 12 days before the election.

The votes on increasing the minimum wage, which Republicans for the most part oppose, were particularly instructive. Voters overwhelmingly approved minimum wage hikes in four states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — while sending Republicans to the Senate.

In a fifth state, Illinois, voters approved an advisory measure recommending a minimum wage hike to $10 from $8.25 while replacing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, an outspoken proponent of the increase, with Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, who had a history of opposing minimum wage increases but eventually endorsed the advisory measure.

Voters were generous on bond issues, approving in California a record-high $7.2 billion bond for state water supply infrastructure projects and in New York a $2 billion bond for school technology.

They displayed environmental consciousness, passing measures in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, New Jersey and Rhode Island that allocated substantial sums to environmental projects. In Florida, 75 percent of voters approved a state constitutional amendment that over 20 years will designate an estimated $18 billion for land acquisition to protect the state’s land and water resources, including wetlands, forests, and fish and wildlife habitats.

Local voters also contributed to environmental protection. In California, two counties banned hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, a process by which oil and gas are extracted under high pressure. Environmental groups contend that the process contaminates the water supply.

A third “anti-fracking” measure, in Santa Barbara County, lost because of its vague wording and heavy opposition spending by the oil industry. But in Denton, Texas, near the center of the nation’s oil and gas boom, voters approved an anti-fracking measure by a 59-41 percent margin.

The state measures were the achievements of an electorate that was grayer, whiter and supposedly more conservative than the one that re-elected President Barack Obama in 2012. On the face of it, the liberalism of voters on the minimum wage and the environment and their generosity on bond issues would appear to contradict their partisan actions, as well as exit polls that showed skepticism about government spending.

But the apparent contradiction underestimates voters, who tend to make their decisions on ballot measures on their merits without partisan reference, said Wendy Underhill, who tracks ballot measures for the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislators.

“The voters may deserve more credit for independent thinking than they are usually given,” she said.

The 2014 midterms were the sixth year of a presidency, in which the party out of power has always done well. With unintended help from Obama, who somewhat surprisingly said his policies were on the ballot, Republicans managed to make the congressional and state legislative contests — in some cases even the gubernatorial races — a referendum on him.

Political demographer Charlie Cook believes Democrats were also hurt by a public perception that the economy has not sufficiently recovered from the Great Recession.

In the legislative races, Republicans ran the table, winning almost all their target races, while losing nothing to Democrats. Republicans won both houses in Nevada and West Virginia, the latter after a Democratic state senator switched parties after the election.

Republicans also won the state senates in Colorado, Maine, New York and Washington, and the state houses in Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

They won three governorships in the blue states of Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts, as well as the governorship of Arkansas. The sole Democratic bright spot in gubernatorial races was Pennsylvania, where a Democrat ousted an incumbent Republican.

Even in deep-blue California, where Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was re-elected to an unprecedented fourth term, Republicans claimed a victory of sorts. They won enough seats in both legislative houses to deny Democrats the two-thirds margin they enjoyed after the 2012 elections. This will give the GOP a say on tax issues, which in California require a two-thirds legislative vote for approval.

Overall, Republicans gained ground in every region of the country and now control 68 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers and hold more than 4,100 of the nation’s 7,383 legislative seats. After Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, the GOP won big in the 2010 midterm election. This was followed by legislative redistrictings that in many states favored Republicans. After modest losses in 2012, when Obama was re-elected, Republicans targeted key states in this year’s election and ran sophisticated campaigns in many of them. But since so many chambers are in Republican control, the party could be at or near its zenith.

“It’s hard to see how the Republicans could go higher or the Democrats lower,” said Tim Storey, a political analyst for NCSL.

Looked at from one perspective, Democrats lost more than Republicans gained. Before the election Democrats controlled both chambers of the legislature and the governorship, a so-called trifecta, in 13 states. Now they enjoy this status in only seven: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. Republicans control the Legislature and the governorship in 23 states, the same as before the election. The big change was an increase in legislatures split between the parties or with a legislature of one party and the governor of another. There are now 18 such states.

Storey said this division could produce more bipartisan compromise, at least in the states where neither party is in full control. Even if this happens, Democratic losses could make a difference.

In Colorado, for instance, narrowly re-elected Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has been trying for months to engineer a compromise on the fracking issue. With the Colorado Senate in GOP hands, any anti-fracking bill is probably dead.

On other controversial legislation, such as voter identification and abortion, GOP-controlled states already have completed much of their agendas. Voter ID is now largely a matter for the courts.

So, too, may be abortion. Since 2010, GOP-controlled states have imposed more than 200 restrictions on abortion. Tennessee may join the list of states with obstructive abortion rules on the basis of a ballot initiative approved in this year’s election that will allow the Legislature to impose additional restrictions. (Two other abortion-related measures on state ballots — defining a fetus as a person — were rejected by voters in Colorado and North Dakota.)

Beyond such hot-button issues, legislatures in 2015 will tackle issues such as education, cybersecurity and prison reform that do not easily break along party lines. The year after midterm elections is often productive in state legislatures, and 2015 should be no exception.

Voters demonstrated both independence and thoughtfulness in the 2014 elections. Perhaps legislators and governors of both parties will follow their lead in the year ahead.

Lou Cannon, a Summerland resident, is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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