One Party Dominates the Top Five Offices in 29 States

Such partisan domination can cause concern for the future of the minority party.
by | April 19, 2011

Are more states becoming dominated by one party at the state level? Quite possibly, according to evidence from the 2010 elections.

Looking at five state-level positions -- governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer -- I found that one party has unanimous control of these offices in 29 states. In these elections, Republicans went five for five in these offices in 15 states and four for four (with one overlapping office) in an additional three states. The Democrats, for their part, went five for five in eight states and four for four in an additional three states.

These numbers represent an increase in partisan control. Prior to the elections, 26 states had these four or five offices dominated by one party -- 11 Republican and 15 Democratic.

Equally notable, the number of states where control was divided between Democrats and Republicans in these five offices (defined as three offices held by one party and two held by the other) shrunk after the 2010 elections. Prior to the elections, 10 states fit this description: California, Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington state and Wisconsin.

Now, only six states have a similar party split, and only two of them -- Nevada and Washington -- had a roughly even split both before and after the election. The other four are Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and New Mexico.

These five offices do not offer a perfect metric: Some of these positions are appointed rather than elected; in some states the same person holds more than one of these offices; and certain states have other influential statewide elected officials, including superintendent of public instruction, insurance commissioner, agriculture commissioner and state auditor. Still, these five posts should provide a baseline indication of party dominance.

Why does this matter, aside from the obvious perks of office? Two words: Farm team.

In states where the minority party lacks representation in statewide offices, it risks embarking upon a downward spiral of impotence. The inability to win offices like state treasurer, secretary of state and attorney general severely hampers a party from grooming future leaders to run for higher offices. Conversely, a majority party that holds many such offices has loads of promising candidates to choose from.

If a party doesn't have access to rising stars in statewide offices, they are left with imperfect options. Candidates like members of Congress are marred by spending much of their time in Washington, while non-politicians face a steeper learning curve in playing the political game.

Minority party state legislators may be tough to groom because they represent narrow districts rather than the whole state. A party that is unable to win statewide offices is also a party that's likely to be in the minority in the legislature. In the 29 states with one-party dominance of statewide offices, that same party controls all but a handful of legislative chambers.

"In the short term, if the minority party doesn't have a solid candidate on the statewide bench with a decent profile, it makes breaking through that much more difficult," says Ben Cannatti, a political consultant who during the 2010 cycle worked for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which promotes GOP candidates for many of these statewide offices. "This drives home the vital importance for parties to cultivate credible, relevant, viable and funded candidates who are able to run strong against the prevailing winds."

Bleak Outlook for Minority Party

When I contacted political practitioners and analysts in states with one-party dominance, most were blunt about the minority party's bleak outlook.

In Oregon, where the Democrats won the major offices in 2010 despite the national Republican tide, the lack of a bench was to blame. "The shorthand answer is that people who can win Republican primaries can't win statewide elections and vice versa," says David Sarasohn, a political columnist with The Oregonian. "It would be useful to have a Republican secretary of state, attorney general or treasurer who had already shown he could win statewide, which was absolutely the pattern when moderate Republicans dominated this state in the 1970s and 1980s."

In California -- also home to a Democratic sweep in 2010 -- the Republican Party has similarly marginalized itself. Even a respected, moderate Republican like Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley failed to live up to his early billing and ended up losing the 2010 attorney general race to Democrat Kamala Harris, who many observers had considered too liberal to win statewide.

"California has become so generically Democratic, and the GOP so uncompetitive, that even a mediocre Democrat with modest funding will win over a typical Republican," says Democratic strategist Garry South.

The states where Republicans are in solid control are, if anything, even more hopeless for the minority party.

Take Nebraska, for example. While the legislature is officially nonpartisan, "the Republican bench strength is deep and the stars are always pretty much aligned in the upward pecking order for years ahead," says former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub, a Republican. "The Democrats have some local capability in Lincoln and Omaha, but no rising stars with statewide visibility critical to winning state-level offices."

In Louisiana, where a post-Katrina exodus from New Orleans has only accelerated the ongoing "Republicanization" of the state, a steady stream of Democratic elected officials have switched to the GOP, including Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

"I don't see Democrats making a comeback in Louisiana for a generation, frankly," says Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "The Republicans are just hitting their stride statewide and will hold sway, in my view, for the next 20 years."

And in Alabama, "Democrats who think it will be an easy comeback are deceiving themselves and are misreading fundamental developments in regional politics," says former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder, a Democrat. "Election 2010 eliminated the conservative 'Blue Dog' politicians. This eliminated a functional element that kept the Democrats a meaningful player in Southern politics and deprived the party of a stable farm team of potential candidates for the future."

To be sure, certain states where one party seems dominant in statewide offices today doesn't guarantee future dominance. In Maine and Ohio, for instance, all five positions were held by Democrats before the 2010 election, yet now are all held by Republicans. For a variety of demographic and political reasons, however, most analysts expect these two states to remain swing states for years to come.

Split Preferences in State and Federal Elections

There are a dwindling number of states with a roughly equal partisan split in statewide offices. This isn't too surprising because these states are generally considered swing states -- states that voted for George W. Bush at least once, went for Barack Obama in 2008, and are now considered in play for 2012. They include Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.

In Nevada, for instance, the Republicans successfully defended an open gubernatorial seat but failed to oust a vulnerable incumbent Democratic attorney general. "The Democrats have a slight advantage here, but not much," says Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas Sun columnist.

There also are a handful of states where state dominance by local Democrats coexists with a lean toward the GOP in federal races. This pattern is most common in the South and border states, where Democratic parties held sway at the local level for decades even as voters' supported the GOP nationally.

The clearest example is Kentucky, where the Democrats control the five top elected offices, even though voters preferred John McCain for president in 2008 and Rand Paul for U.S. Senate in 2010. The GOP does control the agriculture commissionership, and Republican candidates are running credible candidacies for several statewide posts in the off-year elections this fall.

How to Make the Minority Party the Majority Party

For parties looking to dig themselves out of a hole, the analysts I spoke to weren't able to offer much advice. In some states, a fractured party system can allow a minority party to motivate moderates and independents to vote against ideologues. That approach could help Democrats come back in Kansas -- in fact, in the 2006 election, Kansas Democrats used precisely that strategy, and it helped them secure all five posts. (In 2010, Republicans secured all five posts.) In California, the recent enactment of all-party primaries could help produce more moderate Republican candidates who might be better positioned to win statewide.

Of course, long-term demographic change is the most reliable comeback tool for weaker parties. Texas could be a good test laboratory - it's one of a number of states seeing a rapid growth in the Hispanic population, a demographic that traditionally supports Democrats. But the electoral transition won't be quick. "Experts believe it will take until 2018 or 2020 before Democrats can begin to win statewide elections again," says Wayne Slater, a senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News.

Finally, minority parties can leverage scandals, and simple exhaustion with the party in power to claw their way back. Even these, however, aren't a slam-dunk for the out-of-power party, notes Browder, the former Alabama Congressman. A Democratic comeback in Alabama would "require more than Republican malgovernance, because Republican officials who screw up will simply be replaced by alternative Republican candidates," says Browder.

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