After the second Republican defeat at the hands of President Barack Obama, gloating Democrats and disappointed Republicans alike have pinned the blame for Mitt Romney's loss on one culprit alone: the GOP itself, arguing that its pointed focus on social issues and indifferent, even hostile, attitude toward minority voters have essentially made it a political anachronism.
But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the nation’s state legislatures.
The Republicans now have 30 gubernatorial seats, the highest number for either party in 12 years, while the GOP also controls 26 state legislatures. It retained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislative body designed to directly represent the interests and opinions of the American people, despite sweeping wins for Democrats in U.S. Senate races and a significant Electoral College victory for Obama.
So how is it possible to explain the supposed demographic shift away from the GOP as the party continues its dominance on the state level? The answer is Congressional redistricting.
How Gerrymandering Worked
Congressional districts on both the state and local level must be redrawn every 10 years to coincide with population changes reported by the U.S. Census, which is mandated to occur every decade by the U.S. Constitution. So the losses experienced by Democrats to Republicans -- driven by the Tea Party revolution -- during the 2010 midterm elections could not have come at a worse time. Newly elected Republican governors and GOP-controlled state legislatures were able to redraw congressional districts in a way that would protect Republican incumbents and oust Democrats in several battleground states. It was a political move that Democrats almost certainly would have made themselves, had they been in control -- but they weren’t.
As a result, today's congressional maps in swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin -- all states won decisively by Obama, even though Democrats constitute only a minority of their House delegations -- can make it appear as though there is more Republican support in the state than there actually is because districts in those states have been cut up to give GOP candidates an advantage in elections.
Redistricting is a prime reason why Republicans in North Carolina managed to take a majority of that state's House and Senate, even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, according to Michael Cobb, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University. Although the governor, Bev Purdue, is a Democrat, the Republican takeover of the state legislature allowed the GOP to redraw congressional districts in a way that would favor its candidates in the 2012 election.
Statewide, Republican candidates took 77 of 120 North Carolina House seats, reportedly about 16 more than the party would have been able to win before the latest round of redistricting. On the Senate side, Republicans won 32 of 50 seats.
“It reminds me of the situation Democrats in the South found themselves in years ago. Conservative Democrats were successful in local regions, but not on the national level when they had to appeal to more moderate voters,” Cobb said.
While North Carolina residents this week elected the state’s first Republican governor in more than two decades, Cobb said the results do not necessarily indicate that the electorate is increasingly abandoning blue for red. In fact, he said the Republicans' success should be credited more to incumbent Gov. Bev Perdue’s unpopularity (her Lt. Gov. Dan Walton ran as the Democratic nominee after she chose not to run for a second term) than voters' affinity for Governor-elect Patrick McCrory.
“People here call themselves Democrats, but they’ll also vote Republican,” Cobb said.
That’s abundantly clear. North Carolina was one of the few swing states Romney won this year, even though it went for Obama in 2008. And yet, earlier this year, its Republican-controlled legislature had a bleak 15 percent approval rating, according to Public Policy Polling.
New Hampshire's Republican Backlash
Republicans may have maintained their control or amplified their control of state legislatures this year, but that may not be the case for long if they refuse to budge from an obsession with social issues. Case in point: New Hampshire.
One of the breakthrough events of the 2012 election is that the Granite State will be the first to have an all-female delegation -- that is, a woman will hold the governorship, while female candidates won all of its U.S. House and Senate seats. Plus, the two women elected to the House snatched away those seats from Republican opponents, an interesting development in the “Live free or die” state, which has historically been fiercely independent and friendly to limited government.
The state’s legislature is the largest in the country, with 424 members, 400 of whom are in the House. Democrats held a majority in the state House following the 2008 election, before Republicans seized the majority with a 298-102 advantage in 2010.
But the GOP’s relentless focus on social issues -- it spearheaded measures to repeal same-sex marriage, roll back the teaching of evolution in public schools, and tighten abortion restrictions for girls under the age of 18 -- seems to have contributed to the reduction of its ranks in 2012. Even GOP-designed redistricting could not save the party in New Hampshire: Democrats made huge gains to win the state legislature with a 222-178 advantage.
This year, Obama won 55 percent of the women’s vote, 71 percent of the Latino vote, 77 percent of the LGBT vote, 73 percent of the Asian vote and a whopping 93 percent of the black vote. Jane Swift, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, warns that the Republican Party will lose these rapidly growing demographic groups, as well as practically a generation of young people, if it refuses to wake up to the realities of the 21st century.
“I have taught a political leadership course at Williams College for the past several years, and it is apparent that college students just don’t get the big fuss over reproductive choice and gay marriage. Even my Republican students appear not only blind to color and ethnicity, but to sexual orientation as well. It’s just no big deal,” Swift wrote in an op-ed for Boston’s WBUR.