Since the government shutdown, public opinion of the Republican Party has hit a new low. Yet the Democrats might not be able to gain from it. Despite the GOP’s fall from grace — and even if they suffer a lower vote count in the 2014 midterm elections — the Republicans might still control the House of Representatives and many state legislatures after the polls close.
Our Constitution is unique in that it gives state legislatures virtually complete control over how we elect the president and Congress. In other democracies, the national government runs elections, usually through an impartial commission. Our system, however, lets the party that controls the state legislatures manipulate election rules to help itself and harm its opponents in both the state and House races.
Realizing this, powerful Republican leaders, including former Bush White House Counselor Ed Gillespie and Senior Adviser Karl Rove decided in 2009 to concentrate on winning control of the state legislatures. Through a combination of money, luck and skill, in 2010 the Republicans captured almost a majority of the state legislatures, and then added a few more in 2012. This has given them the power not only to shape the electoral rules and control the House, but also to pass other laws that shape many aspects of our lives.
The public outrage at the Republicans for the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis, however, offers the Democrats an opportunity to regain control of some state legislatures. This will require a great deal of money and hard work — and it is the national Democratic Party that has the resources to do this. Democratic national leaders, however, seem to consider that the only elected offices worth seeking are in Washington.
Whether the national organization will be willing and able to pivot to something they have ignored for so long is problematic. But they must act, for a comparable opportunity is unlikely for a long time. Otherwise, gridlock may continue.