How Weak is the Republican Party in the Most Democratic States?

Just about as weak as Democrats are in the reddest states.
May 16, 2013

In a column earlier this month, we looked at how the Democrats have fared in the reddest of the red states since 2004. We found that they gained legislative, statewide and congressional seats between 2004 and 2008, then lost a much larger number of seats over the last four years. So we wondered about the reverse -- whether the Republican Party has experienced a similar drop in the bluest of blue states.

The short answer? It turns out that both parties are hemorrhaging seats in unfriendly territory -- just one of the persistent trends that is exacerbating today's red-blue divide.

To do our analysis, we looked at how the Republicans have done in 14 states that have never been seriously targeted by GOP presidential strategists. The states are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state. Not included are battleground states, even if they ended up going for the Democratic presidential nominee over the past few elections, such as Pennsylvania, Maine or Michigan.

For the Democrats, those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Here's the rundown:

State House Seats

  • Republicans in very blue states: The GOP currently holds 32.0 percent of state House seats in these states.
  • Democrats in very red states: The Democrats currently hold 35.6 percent of state House seats in these states.
  • Change in seats since the 2004 election: Republicans are down 4.1 percent; Democrats are down 11 percent.

State Senate Seats

  • Republicans in very blue states: The GOP currently holds 33.4 percent of state Senate seats in these states.
  • Democrats in very red states: The Democrats currently hold 33.3 percent of state Senate seats in these states.
  • Change in seats since the 2004 election: Republicans are down 4.3 percent,; Democrats are down 12 percent.

Share of Presidential Vote

  • Republicans in very blue states: In 2004, George W. Bush won 43.6 percent of the vote in these states But in 2012, Mitt Romney won just 38.3 percent of the vote, a decline of more than 5 percentage points. The GOP improved in just one state -- Romney's home state of Massachusetts.
  • Democrats in very red states: In 2004, John Kerry won 37.2 percent of the vote in these states. But in 2012, Barack Obama won 38.0 percent of the vote, an increase of nearly one percentage point. The Democrats improved their showing in 12 states and did worse in 8 states.

Governor

  • Republicans in very blue states: The GOP had nine governorships in these states in early 2005, but had just one in early 2013, a dramatic decline.
  • Democrats in very red states: The Democrats had seven governorships in these states in early 2005, but just four in early 2013 - a significant decline, though one that's not quite as dramatic as the Republicans' fall.

State Attorney General

  • Republicans in very blue states: The GOP had one state AG office in these states in early 2005, and now have zero.
  • Democrats in very red states: The Democrats had eight state AG slots in these states in early 2005, and now have just three.

U.S. House

  • Republicans in very blue states: The GOP had 58 U.S. House seats in these states in early 2005; that number fell to 42 seats in early 2013, a decrease of 28 percent. The party increased its numbers in only one state, Washington state, due partly to a gain in seats from reapportionment.
  • Democrats in very red states: The Democrats had 41 U.S. House seats in these states in early 2005; that number fell to 26 seats in early 2013, a decrease of 37 percent. The party increased its numbers in only one state, Texas, a change also aided by reapportionment.

U.S. Senate

  • Republicans in very blue states: The GOP had three U.S. Senate seats in these states in early 2005, but just one in early 2013.
  • Democrats in very red states: The Democrats had 10 U.S. Senate seats in these states in early 2005, and eight in early 2013.

In other words, by most measures, both parties are doing poorly in their most challenging states. The GOP is faring particularly poorly in governorships, while the Democrats are especially weak in state legislative seats. The one area in which the two parties diverge is a modest Democratic improvement in presidential voting, compared to a rapid weakening of GOP performance in presidential races.

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Why does any of this matter? Here are a few reasons.

First, the data show that in two-thirds of the states Americans are rushing headlong in opposite ideological directions, a development that exacerbates today's partisan divide. Solidly red and solidly blue states are becoming near one-party monopolies with supermajority powers and diminishing possibilities for compromise or moderation. And at the presidential level, this puts ever more focus on a limited number of battleground states.

Second, this pattern is self-perpetuating. As a minority party loses state legislative seats, it has a harder time producing credible candidates for statewide office. This, in turn, makes it harder to compete for congressional seats. Having fewer elected officials also makes it harder for a state party to raise the money that helps maintain the infrastructure necessary to be competitive at every level, all the way up to presidential campaigns.

In putting together our previous column, political observers painted a generally grim outlook for Democrats in strongly Republican states, especially in Southern states. Here, looking at Republicans in strongly Democratic states, we found the situation to be as dire for the GOP as the numbers indicate. In Oregon, for example, where the GOP hasn't elected a governor since 1982, "it's been a tough time for Republicans, due to the virtual disappearance of the moderate Republican tradition," said David Sarasohn, a political columnist with the Oregonian. GOP weakness is especially noticeable, he said, in populous Multnomah County, which includes Portland, as well as neighboring Washington County, a fast-growing suburb. In 1995, Sarasohn said, every legislator from Washington County was Republican; now every state representative from the county is a Democrat, as are all but one state senator.

Consider Vermont, where gubernatorial control has been fairly evenly divided in recent years, but where the GOP now holds just one statewide office, lieutenant governor, and fewer than a third of the state's legislative seats.

"At least when the GOP held the governor's office (prior to 2010), they controlled an important lever of power in Montpelier, and the administration served as a resource for GOP legislators who otherwise have no professional staff assistance," said Eric L. Davis, a Middlebury College political scientist. "Now, the GOP has trouble recruiting candidates for more than 50 percent to 60 percent of legislative seats. Barring a political earthquake at the national level, I don't see any circumstances in which Republican presidential, senatorial or congressional candidates could ever win in Vermont again."

Meanwhile, in Maryland, the GOP is "not in good shape," acknowledged one Republican. The state party has just gone through a "vicious" chairmanship fight, and "even GOP delegates think we will lose seats," the Republican said.

In California, the GOP occupies fewer than one-third of both legislative chambers, fills only 15 congressional seats out of 53, accounts for less than 29 percent of registered voters and lacks even one statewide office, said Democratic strategist Garry South. "Shall we disconnect the breathing tube?"

Democrats in strongly Republican states -- such as Texas, with its large and growing Hispanic population -- hold out hope that demographics can change the partisan equation over the long term. By contrast, Republicans in solidly blue states that are becoming ever-more diverse lack similar

prospects. Instead, Republicans in these states have to pin their hopes on a Democratic downfall from majority hubris.

For instance, the GOP has an opportunity in the New York state legislature amid a blizzard of ethics problems within the Democratic majority. And in Illinois, Republicans could seize on the unpopularity of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, the lingering odor of the Rod Blagojevich scandal and the state's multitude of policy problems.

Even so, the ideological leanings of such states won't be easy to overcome, especially if the national political climate trumps local considerations. Often, there's a disconnect between pragmatists and ideologues in state parties.

In Illinois, "the GOP remains divided between hard-line conservatives and moderates who say moderation is needed, such as past Republican governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar," said Bernie Schoenburg, a political columnist for the State Journal Register in Springfield, Ill. "There's no guarantee those rifts can be patched to reach a consensus by 2014 election."

Indeed, in many places, the best a minority party can do in the short term is to find one especially attractive candidate and carefully groom them to pick off a top slot such as governor or U.S. senator. For instance, Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott could mount a plausible run for governor once popular Democrat Peter Shumlin decides to step down (though even this may require Scott to become independent, said political scientist Davis of Middlebury College).

And in Delaware -- where Republicans in the rural, socially conservative South have edged out the party's country-club wing from the more populous Wilmington suburbs -- some Republicans see bright things for Ernie Lopez. A moderate Hispanic Republican with upstate ties, Lopez managed to get elected to the general assembly from a downstate district in Sussex County, albeit from a more liberal beach area. "If he can hang on," said Allan Loudell, a radio host on Wilmington's WDEL, "he becomes a potentially formidable candidate for statewide office."

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