If Donald Trump truly wants to make America great again, the most profound and enduring way to accomplish that is by making state governments great again. This is the case not only because localism is the right approach to governance and a way to heal the partisan divide, but it could also help create a permanent majority for conservatives throughout much of the country and erect a long-term firewall in the states for when Democrats win back control of the federal government.
The amazing opportunity in the states
The breadth of GOP dominance in state legislatures in recent years, which culminated in last week’s elections, is nothing short of astonishing. They hold 34 governorships, 33 states with control of both chambers of the legislature, and hold the trifecta (governor and both chambers) in 25 states. Democrats hold a trifecta in just five states and there are only 12 states in which they fully control both chambers of the legislature. Republicans also won 31 secretary of state offices, which means they will control election law in many states — to the extent the courts are barred from meddling with the process.
What is so astounding about the GOP achieving this degree of domination in the states is that this was a presidential year. Due to increased racial polarization of the parties, there has been a growing gulf in turnout between presidential years and midterm elections that benefits Republicans in off years. This means Republicans have room to grow to pick off a few red/purple state governors and even some lean-blue state legislative chambers in two years.
Moreover, in an overwhelming number of the 33 GOP-controlled states, including critical states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida, Republicans enjoy super-majorities in one or both chambers. Democrats only have five or so deep blue states where they command a super majority in the state senate to overcome a filibuster from Republicans or override the veto of a GOP governor. For example, even in deeply blue Illinois, Republicans broke the Democrat super-majority in the state house.
The significance of controlling 33 state legislatures is that Republicans are now just one state short of having enough states to propose constitutional amendments and convene an Article V Convention of the States. It is clear from the lackluster Republicans in Washington and Trump’s unreliable views, in conjunction with a tenuous hold on presidential elections, that the only way for conservatives to create enduring victories is to fight back in the states and through changing the system from bottom up. That opportunity is now stronger than most realize.
Democrats have gerrymandered themselves into oblivion on a state level
Returning power to the states is not only the constitutional thing to do, but it plays to the strength of the growing super-majority Republicans have on a state level and protects them from the demographic time bomb and the tenuous hold on federal elections, especially for president and Senate.
To put it bluntly: Democrats have geographically, racially, and ideologically gerrymandered themselves into oblivion. Their entire coalition is built upon block voting of minorities and unmarried white liberals in urban areas. This has kept them very competitive in presidential elections and winner-take-all by state senate elections where they can run up massive margins in urban areas. This time, they came up short both for president and in the Senate. But they still won the popular vote nationwide and will always remain competitive if not victorious in future elections, especially with the growth of their key demographics. A lackluster GOP control of Congress and a troubling Trump presidency could allow Democrats to come roaring back in two years. Then what?
However, that is where the good news for the Left ends, and where the opportunity for conservatives to build a permanent majority for liberty in many states begins.
To being with, in all but below average years for Republicans, there are more red states than blue states. This automatically gives Republicans an advantage in the U.S. Senate. Moreover, any office that is elected by a district automatically benefits Republicans, even in a presidential year — even in a losing cycle — much less an off year or winning cycle. This is why Republicans have held onto the House for 20 of the last 24 years (including this election) — with the exception of 2006 when Bush was deeply unpopular and Democrats ran moderate House candidates. Almost the entire Democrat coalition is clustered in urban areas, making it nearly impossible for them to win a majority of House districts nationwide. One-third of their House caucus comes from just three states: California, New York, and Massachusetts.
Even in 2012, when Obama defeated Mitt Romney pretty decisively, Romney still carried 226 congressional districts to Obama’s 209. This is because Obama won just 690 of the 3,144 counties or county equivalents, even as he won the popular vote by four percentage points. That was during a losing year for Republicans. Now consider the fact that even as Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote by at least one point (while losing the Electoral College), she carried just 478 counties (by my very rough and preliminary count) — just 15% of the counties.
The emerging GOP super-majority in states
The isolation of the Democrat coalition is even worse in state legislative districts, which are even more confined than congressional districts. This is why Republicans have super majorities in state legislative chambers in presidential swing states, such as Florida and Ohio, and why they have narrow majorities even in reliable blue states. Also, states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which haven’t gone blue in recent years until this election, already had strong GOP majorities. The Democrat coalition is so isolated that they have trouble holding majorities in most legislatures outside of a handful of very deep blue states.
Thus, even in bad years, when Republican can’t squeeze the extra point or two out of Florida to win the presidential election, they still control state government. In 2012, Obama carried Florida, but Romney won the state house districts 65-55 (courtesy of Daily Kos election maps). Obama carried Ohio by three points, yet Romney carried the state house districts 60-39. As Obama won Pennsylvania statewide, thanks to a massive turnout in Philadelphia, Romney carried the state house districts 114-89. Even in Michigan, where Obama blew out Romney by almost 10 points, Romney still won a slight majority of state house districts.
Thus, even the low-water mark for Republicans in state legislative districts represents a clear majority throughout the nation. Add to the GOP strength in state districts the fact that all but 12 governors are elected during off-years, as well as most other statewide officials, and they have a road to a permanent majority in the states. This is why every elected official in Florida is a Republican, despite its status as a top swing state in presidential years. This is in a nutshell is why we must devolve power to the states and make our stand on permanently favorable ground.
Focus of federal battles must be on empowering states
After eight years of suffering under Obama’s imperial presidency, even the biggest skeptics of Trump are giddy with excitement about the prospects of some positive improvement. Conservatives will be tantalized by the fact that Republicans control the White House, House, and Senate at such a critical time and will want to focus on a lot of federal issues. However, the election results demonstrate why conservatives should use this mandate — this closing window of electoral viability on a federal level — to return power to the states and secure a future firewall for a ‘rainy day’ electorally.
Obviously, it’s important that the initial mandate be used to repeal Obamacare and implement true conservative immigration reform. However, beyond those issues, let’s face it: A narrow GOP-controlled Senate full of moderate-to-liberal members is not going to pass our domestic policy agenda. Which is why it is critical to build a movement pressuring Congress to at least devolve many functions — including the corresponding revenue and responsibility — to the states.
One of the ways for House conservatives to work around Trump’s liberal views on some fiscal issues is to promote localism. The reality is even if we had a conservative Congress and president it would still be hard to roll back all this dependency on a federal level amidst the backlash from so many special interest groups. What if we devolved transportation, education, and many welfare programs to the states and allowed conservatives to fight for budget priorities on a state level? We’ve lost the blue states anyway and have failed for decades to roll back the size of government and dependency on a federal level. Let’s at least try to implement conservative policies on a state level in the many parts of the country where we can dominate in the legislatures.
Now is the perfect time for Convention of the States
History has shown that Republicans have failed to limit government even when they are in charge of all branches of government. History has also shown that the balance of power will always shift back to the other party in short order. That would apply even to a principled conservative party, much less the mess of a Republican Party we have today.
But why should we ever be just one election away from losing our liberty, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and civil society? Why should we be one Supreme Court justice or court case away from redefining fundamental rights? This is our country, our Constitution, and our system of governance. Why should we allow the 100-year-long coup against the Constitution to continue, irrespective of which personnel is in power? This is not merely a problem of getting the right personnel into government; it is a systemic problem in that the firewall of the Constitution has been breached.
This is where the Convention of the States comes into play. Republicans are now just one state shy of the 34 needed to propose an Article V convention and permanently take back our government. This will provide us with the opportunity to finally clarify the key clauses of the Constitution, return power to the states, weaken the federal judiciary, and ensure that the federal government in general, and federal elections in particular, aren’t that consequential.
The amazing grassroots movement led by the Convention of the States Project has already gotten eight states to pass subject-matter resolutions agreeing to convene a convention to limit the size and jurisdiction of the federal government, propose fiscal restraints, and consider term limits. We can bring this movement to the goal-line on the cusp of success after the coming year’s legislative sessions. This is the only way for the people to bypass Washington and finally return to self-governance in which we will make state and local elections more consequential.
It’s also important to note that the current electoral map demonstrates the folly of those concerned about a “runaway convention” in which liberals hijack convention proceedings to promote their constitutional changes. Aside from the fact that Article V conventions, unlike state “constitutional conventions,” are limited to the subject matter in the state applications and the delegates are bound by those resolutions, there is no way the Left could succeed. Remember, each proposed amendment must go back to the states and win support in both chambers of the legislature in 38 states. Given the demographics of the Democrat Party, as demonstrated throughout this article, it is impossible for them to ever propose an idea that would not be opposed by at least one chamber in 13 states. And if the political climate ever gave birth to Democrat dominance in 38 legislatures, they would have long changed our country through the easier legislative processes and judicial and executive fiat.
Now is our time and opportunity to take back our government, not just for one election cycle, but for our posterity. The imperative and opportunity to make state legislatures great again is there for the taking.
The deep sea of red on the electoral map is perhaps the greatest omen of our time calling for the people to rise up and truly make these United States great again.
Author: Daniel Horowitz
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.