The Week in Politics: Democrats Preserve Remaining Power in South, While State Parties Keep Losing It

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | March 11, 2016
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

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In Florida, GOP-Dominated Legislature Unites Against GOP Governor

Last year, the Florida House and Senate spent a lot of time (and special sessions) squabbling over issues like Medicaid expansion and redistricting. This year, legislators in both chambers managed to unite against a common enemy: GOP Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida's government is dominated by Republicans, but both the state House and Senate are expected to pass an $82.3 billion budget on Friday that has won more praise from Democrats than Scott. It would increase funding for schools (both K-12 and higher ed), while cutting the state workforce. 

Negotiators also agreed to drop language to defund Planned Parenthood. "They're actually putting together the kind of budget that we wanted to do," state House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford told the Tampa Bay Times.

Scott, by contrast, won't get his way on two key priorities. For one thing, the budget doesn't provide tax cuts totalling anything like the $1 billion he wanted. The Senate appropriations chair said that would be "fiscally irresponsible." Instead of $1 billion in mostly corporate cuts, as Scott proposed, the $400 million legislative package offers breaks for a variety of taxpayers, including property owners, cellphone users and back-to-school shoppers.

"Particularly in the Senate, they are recognizing that they are tying the hands of future legislatures when they give away recurring dollars," said Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, a progressive research group. "They are looking at governing, not just campaigning."

Legislators also refused to give Scott the $250 million he asked for to close more economic development deals. Instead, they are giving him nothing.

"It's certainly been a contentious policy battle," said Andres Malave, communications director for Americans for Prosperity's Florida chapter, which ran ads opposing the incentives package. "The legislature is standing strong on that."

Throughout Scott's second term, his fellow Republicans have sometimes been reluctant to give him a break. Last year, Scott's pick for state party chair failed to get the job. This week, Senate Republicans announced that they won't confirm Scott's choice for surgeon general. It will be the first time since 1995 that an agency head hasn't won confirmation in Florida.

Scott earned the ill will of legislators last year by vetoing $461 million worth of earmarks. Legislators are practically daring him to do it again, reinserting a number of the canceled projects into the new budget.

With the state capitol scheduled to undergo reconstruction, legislative leaders are already making plans to hold sessions in the historic Old Capitol to override any Scott vetoes -- "just in case," said Senate President Andy Gardiner this week.

Democrats Protect Shred of Power in South

The Kentucky House is the last chamber Democrats control anywhere in the South. They will hold on to it at least a little longer, after winning three of the four special House elections on Tuesday.

"This was actually quite a surprise," said Dewey Clayton, a University of Louisville political scientist. "The momentum was on the Republican side, there was no doubt about it."

The GOP had been eating away at the Democrats' majority through party switches and gubernatorial appointments since Republican Gov. Matt Bevin was elected last November. If Republicans had swept the four races this week, the chamber would have been tied, but the GOP would have had effective control since one Democrat is absent due to heart surgery. Instead, Democrats actually made a net gain of one seat and now have a 53-47 edge.

Republicans hoped their voters would be motivated to turn out after heavy campaigning that coincided with the state's presidential caucus last Saturday. Bevin campaigned in each of the races. But he drew criticism for posting a snarky video on Facebook Monday that showed him walking into an empty House chamber, mocking Democrats for not working on the state budget.

Despite their party's losses last fall, Democrats in the Kentucky House have proven to be tenacious. In 2014, when the GOP enjoyed sweeping victories across the country, they didn't lose a single seat. Unions, concerned about possible right-to-work legislation and other policies an unbridled GOP might push, played a big role in this week's contests.

One Democrat got a push from a seemingly unlikely source. For years, Kentucky Republicans have tied Democrats to President Obama, who is highly unpopular in the state. But a robocall from Obama himself seemed to help elect Jeffrey Taylor to a House seat this week.

Democrats are now claiming that their victory is a repudiation of Bevin's budget, which would impose draconian cuts, especially to higher education. Democratic leaders in the House plan to release a budget next week that will look nothing like the governor's.

That will set up a battle that will continue for the rest of the session -- and provide fodder for the political fight that will continue until November elections, when the whole House will be at stake.

Is It Time to Deregulate State Parties?

With so much money flowing through super PACs and other outside groups, state parties have been losing strength. A lot of their basic work -- registering, educating and turning out voters -- ends up being highly regulated under federal campaign finance restrictions that don't apply to other players in the political process.

"The idea that we can't coordinate with a state Senate candidate because there's also a U.S. Senate candidate on the ballot seems absurd," said Jason Perkey, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Perkey spoke at a Brookings Institution event on Tuesday marking the release of a new paper advocating for state parties to be less regulated. The authors call for limits on contributions to state parties to be raised or abolished. It would be better for democracy, they contend, if campaign money flows through parties rather than so-called dark money groups that are mostly unregulated.

"It's simple math: If you restrict the party, you get more independent expenditures by non-party groups," said Raymond La Raja, a University of Massachusetts political scientist and coauthor of the paper. "We think that dark money groups and super PACs are here to stay, so why handcuff state parties?"

State parties tend to be less polarizing than such groups because they have to worry about long-term results and the reputation of the party's brand for more than a single election cycle.

"A lot of these third-party groups are just a bank account with a few people controlling it," an anonymous Republican state party official told the authors. "A party has a history."

Parties also have to worry about a wider range of offices than outside groups, which may only care about a single race on the ballot.

La Raja and coauthor Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings senior fellow, surveyed 56 state parties. They found that while nearly all of them work to recruit candidates, they mostly stay neutral during primaries. Only six percent of the parties surveyed said they often take sides in competitive primaries, compared to 83 percent who rarely or never do.

It seems to make perfect sense for the party itself to act as an honest broker. But by staying neutral, parties are failing at their traditional role of vetting candidates. Instead, they have to wait on the sidelines to work with nominees who had either been supported or pummeled by highly motivated, often ideologically extreme outside groups.

Changing the rules to let state parties play a bigger role would help temper the polarized politics of our time, argue La Raja and Rauch. At any rate, they say, it couldn't hurt.

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