Deepening Statehouse Divisions Foretell Big Policy Fights

By: - November 30, 2020 12:00 am

Supporters at a rally in Milwaukee react to the news that President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump. But Republicans control the Wisconsin state legislature and will clash with Democratic Gov. Tony Evers over budget and COVID-19 issues. Morry Gash/The Associated Press

In swing states especially, blue counties got bluer and red counties got redder in the November elections, widening ideological divides as Democrats and Republicans dug in and became less likely to compromise on pressing issues in the 2021 legislative sessions, including dealing with COVID-19 and budget deficits.

The ideological divides foreshadow the rancorous redistricting process that will set political boundaries for the next decade, particularly in states where the governor is of one party and the legislature the other.

This deepening partisanship could affect a range of policy initiatives on budgets, minimum wage, marijuana laws and infrastructure funding, among others.

“In states that have a divided government, it sure stacks the deck against getting meaningful and needed policy change,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. In North Carolina, as well as other states, he said in an interview, the increased polarization between Republicans and Democrats “makes it that much harder to govern.”

The majority-Republican North Carolina legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have deadlocked for several years on the budget and other issues such as Medicaid expansion and business tax cuts.

More pressing, Greene said, North Carolina and other governmentally split states have had troubles coming up with policy to combat COVID-19. Unresolved issues surrounding Medicaid expansion will contribute to making it “notably more difficult to face COVID issues going forward,” he said.

The divide has stymied federal politics for years and is becoming more prevalent at the state level.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Madison and their suburbs have grown a deeper shade of blue over the past decade and a half, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a trend particularly evident in the recent elections. By contrast, most of the rural areas of the state have trended a deeper red.

“We’ve been talking about polarization for a decade now, but it seems to have increased to a kind of legislative impasse,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll, who has studied state and federal politics, “whether you are talking about the U.S. Congress, or state legislatures and governors.

“I think we have shifted to a period in American politics where accountability has been reduced … because partisans are now so unfailingly aligned with their leaders.”

Aside from the usual urban/rural disagreements on where to spend money—public transit versus rural highways, for instance—the dispute over how to respond to COVID-19 is expected to spill into next year in Wisconsin. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers plans a new executive order requiring a mask mandate into 2021 and called on Republicans to drop a lawsuit against it. Wisconsin is one of a handful of states without a statewide pandemic plan, due to GOP efforts to thwart Evers’ proposals, except for the mask mandate, so far.

In many states, the split is particularly acute in outer suburbs and small metropolitan areas, according to demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank. Frey found that suburban counties and smaller cities contributed to President-elect Joe Biden’s victories in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Those areas also showed shifts in legislative races. In Wisconsin, Democrats picked up two Assembly seats in the suburbs north of Milwaukee. The legislature remains in Republican hands, though not with a veto-proof majority. Evers will have a bit more power because Wisconsin practices the line-item veto, which allows items within bills to be vetoed.

Franklin said that the intensified partisanship does not bode well for the already-polarized state government. Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, refused to speak to Evers for six months this year, though he said this month that he’s willing to talk with Evers about the state’s pandemic response.

In states where one party rules, expanded control from the November elections will solidify positions. In Iowa, Republicans will have two more years of strengthened Republican control and are likely to pursue tax cuts, expanded gun rights and abortion restrictions.  Wyoming also moved further right, electing conservative lawmakers who are likely to favor cutting government and to oppose taxes. Both states have Republican governors.

After two years in the minority, New Hampshire Republicans seized control of both legislative chambers and kept control of the governor’s office. They are likely to face budget shortfalls, particularly if the federal government doesn’t come through with funds, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. 

In more divided Pennsylvania, the suburban Philadelphia counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery increased their existing Democratic advantages from 2016, Frey found.

“Biden won it the old-fashioned way, by winning a lot of suburban voters over,” said William Galston, Frey’s colleague at Brookings.

But Biden’s victory did little to change the Pennsylvania legislature. Republicans in the House and Senate kept their majorities, continuing a face-off with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. 

Republican control of the legislature will make it harder for Wolf to move forward with his plans to increase the minimum wage and enact a tax on natural gas extraction, and will have a large impact on redistricting. Lawmakers are already meeting to decide whether to create a nonpartisan panel to draw the lines, an attempt by Republicans to head off a court-devised map that appears to favor Democrats.

In North Carolina, Greene’s election analysis reflected the deepening partisanship seen in other states. Biden received more than 473,000 votes in urban counties where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton only won about 338,000 in 2016. But that margin was obliterated by North Carolina’s rural vote, which ended up giving the state to President Donald Trump, Greene’s breakdown showed.

The state Senate and House also stayed in Republican hands, setting the stage for their rivalry with Cooper, who won his re-election campaign, to continue. Cooper and the lawmakers clashed frequently during his first term, over the budget and COVID-19 policies.

In the last session, the legislature and Cooper reached a stalemate over the budget, which Cooper vetoed. The House overrode the veto, but the Senate did not, resulting in a series of bills that rolled over the previous year’s budget and did not give teachers the raise Cooper pushed for.

In response to the pandemic, the legislature approved several GOP-backed bills that would have forced the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions more quickly than Cooper wanted. The governor vetoed those as well.

An analysis by Scala and University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson described the urban/rural divide as a continuum based on population. Biden excelled at the margins across the board just enough to win, they found.

“At one pole are large, densely settled urban cores, where Democrats have consistently been the most successful,” the two wrote. “At the other end are remote rural counties far from a metropolitan area, without large towns, where Republican candidates command their greatest support.”

Those splits mean that state legislatures “are going to be faced with bad and worse sorts of decisions in terms of budgeting and things like education funding. That’s only going to exacerbate the urban/rural split,” Scala said in a telephone interview. Rural areas are “quite dug in for Republicans.”

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.