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Alan Greenblatt on the Campbell Conversations

The midterm election results at the federal level have been heavily parsed. But receiving comparitively less attention are the results down ballot, at the state and local level. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with Alan Greenblatt of Governing Magazine. Greenblatt is a leading observer and writer on state politics and policy. They dicuss the changes resulting from this year's elections and their implications. 

Interview Highlights

Reeher: Let me just start with your basic impressions. What do you think was the main storyline from the state elections that took place during the midterms? Did they tell us anything on the whole about the country’s political mood or inclinations at the state level that we didn’t already know?

Greenblatt: Well, I think it was a reaffirmation of things we already knew. It did seem to me that the partisans kind of went to their separate corners, so the blue states, in general, got bluer. The red states stayed quite red. At the congressional level, Democrats made some gains, and they were primarily in suburban districts. But the map, to me, looks so much like the presidential map of 2012. We had some Democratic gains in the Midwest…but no, in general, we still are two Americas voting in different directions.

Reeher: I my lifetime, and certainly, the 26 years I’ve been here in the state of New York, I can never remember state elections that were so focused on a president or on national politics. You weren’t here in New York during the entire lead-up to this, but if you didn’t know any better, you would think that Gov. Cuomo was running against Donald Trump. And you would’ve thought that a lot of state assembly members were running against Donald Trump. How much do you think national issues and President Trump in particular drove the state-level elections?

Greenblatt: Quite a lot. We’ve seen in recent years kind of a trend toward voting patterns becoming more nationalized. It seems to be the cliché – all politics is local. Now, all politics is national…Certainly, Trump was the main focus on the Republican side, in Republican governors’ primaries, their loyalty to Trump was almost the main qualification that they talked up about themselves…Conversely, the Democrats, such as Cuomo, promised to be a block against the president…We’re seeing this more and more. It’s, I think, partly the media culture and partly the partisanship. People are so focused on what’s happening in Washington. That’s always been the case to some extent, but it’s more so now. There are fewer papers and certainly TV stations covering state capitals. People are so transfixed with this president that he sucks up all the oxygen, to reach for a cliché, and so, you had people who were running…[and] it wasn’t clear what they wanted to do if they got the job of governor because they were talking so much about national issues and President Trump.

Reeher: One of the arguments for having the states at all is it allows for variation and it allows for differences. So, a Republican in Vermont is going to be different than a Republican in Texas, and those policy questions will be different. So, to the degree that the national conversation kind of blocks out these local- and state-based conversations, was there a disservice done in the state- and local-level elections this time around?

Greenblatt: Maybe in terms of the election itself, but the result is we’re going to have that federalism experiment – the laboratories of Democracy where states are going to be doing different things. And it’s not so much that Vermont is still different from Texas, although that’s certainly true. It’s more that, at the state level, the parties have split power. So, in Congress, it happened as well – Democrats took the House, and Republicans kept the Senate. So, we’re going to have gridlock in Washington. It’s going to very ugly. There’ll be a lot of subpoenas and investigations and the president responding in kind and so forth…But, at the state level, there’s almost this perfect split.

Reeher: Did anything happen at the state level in the midterms that just flat-out surprised you, you didn’t see coming and you really were surprised to see?

Greenblatt: There were not really huge surprises. It was kind of a middling result. Typically, the president’s party loses power in the midterms. It’s almost like an iron-law politics…Democrats did gain seats, but not that many. So, there were 6,600 legislative seats up. It was about 80 percent of all of them in the country. And Democrats gained 350, which was not tremendous because the average for the president’s party is to lose 425. So, they fell below the historical average, which is not only not a big wave, but it was actually less than normal. And Democrats picked up seven chambers around the country, but often, they were the short-putt ones. For instance, here in New York, they just needed one seat. They got a few extra…There was not really a tremendous amount of turnover. And then, I don’t think we’ve mentioned at the governor’s level, Democrats also gained seven there, which was a good number. So, Republicans went in with twice as many. Now, it’s 27-23, so Democrats caught up pretty well and won some big states…If I’m a Democrat, I’m looking at some of the results in these upper-Midwest states and thinking about 2020 because where Democrats picked up governorships were mainly states that had switched from Obama to Trump from 2012 to 2016…When you look at the map as a Democrat, you think, “Oh, the electoral college, maybe the Midwest is not gone forever.” There was a lot of talk about that after Trump took over that region. And there’s so much talk about should the Democrats look at the sunbelt instead.

Reeher: What about the policy implications of the results at the state level in the midterms? Is there a new kind of set of proposals or impact that you see likely to be either hitting governors’ desks from legislators or being pushed by governors?

Greenblatt: A lot of the Democrats ran on either expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act or protecting what was already there because Republicans, at first, were saying they might abolish it. And as the elections went on, they said, “No, no. I’m going to protect the coverage of pre-existing conditions.” And on the ballot, Idaho, Utah and Nebraska all voted for Medicaid expansions. And that had actually happened in Maine last year. The voters approved a Medicaid expansion, which the outgoing Republican governor, Paul LePage, blocked…Watching states, in the last couple years, Republicans took over a lot of state legislatures and governorships in 2010. And they’ve had a tremendous amount of policy success with conservative proposals on abortion, on voter ID restrictions, on tax cuts, on school choice and on down the list…In the last couple years, I’ve felt like the red states were not putting out that many ideas. Not a lot was coming across my radar that I thought was interesting or innovative, and I wondered whether the lobbyists had shifted their attention to Washington because Republicans had taken complete control of the presidency and the Congress. I’m wondering how much of the actions now goes back to states because it’ll be a lot easier to get things done at the state level for conservatives and progressives, as well, in separate states.

Reeher: For Congress in this set of midterms, the Democrats really emphasized the candidacies of women and also, as a subset, women with some kind of military experience…Were the parties doing anything in similar kind of veins at the state and local level, either the Democrats or the Republicans, looking for certain kinds of candidates to try to put forward for some important seats?

Greenblatt: There was certainly a good year for women at the state level. There’s no question about it. Just as in Congress, there’s record numbers of women who ran for state legislatures and for governors. The previous record for women nominated by a major party for governor was 10. This year, we had 16. So, on a percentage basis, it’s obviously huge. And we had four women governors reelected and five new women governors elected, so that ties the all-time record. We’ve never had more than nine women serving as governors at the same time. At the legislative levels, [it was] even bigger. Women reached just shy of 25 percent of the legislative seats about 20 years ago, and they’ve been stuck there ever since. And only this year with some special elections did they just get over 25 percent. And after this election, they’re in the mid-30s. They’re 35-36 percent – a huge jump, mostly on the Democratic side. *(See editor's note below) Most women were running as Democrats. We saw that with voters. A lot of women were uncomfortable with this president. Some of them were motivated enough to run for office themselves…The parties are definitely shifting on a demographic base, and certainly by race, but also by gender.

Reeher:  Thinking about, then, where the two parties find themselves at the state and local level, I want to put you in the role of political strategist now. Thinking about the situation that they have, what do you think are the two parties’ best approaches to take at the state level, from a politically strategic point of view, over the next couple years?

Greenblatt: One thing that I’ve been thinking about is whether Democrats have a ceiling at the state level. As I said, their votes come mainly in urban districts, and now, they’ve made further in-roads into the suburbs, in particularly the kind of whole-food sort of suburbs with affluent people. But as I said, their gains were not huge, and they were mostly in states you kind of expect. And so, Republicans remain dominant at the state level despite this.

*Editor's note: After the interview, Greenblatt corrected the statistic of "35-36 percent-- mostly on the Democratic side." The correct number is 28 percent.  

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.