The 2018 election marked at least a temporary end to Republicans’ rise to power in many states. Before their losses in that election, Republicans had full control of 26 states, giving them a sustained opportunity to transform American subnational government.
Liberals certainly feared the worst from this Republican grip on the states. Dark portraits of the Koch brothers’ network and the American Legislative Exchange Council suggested that Republicans were in a position to fundamentally reorient states to scale back public services, serve corporations and the rich, and impose a conservative social agenda. Democrats, from this perspective, would need years, if not decades, to reverse the trend.
The Republican Party still controls many more state governments and legislative chambers than Democrats nationwide. But the fact is, the Republican results at the state level have not been very impressive. Republican-controlled state governments largely failed to enact policies that advance conservative goals. They have been effective at staying in power but have not altered the reach of government or its socio-economic impact.
Democratic fears were, as my new research details, overblown. State expenditures have continued to rise, especially in areas Democrats prioritize like health and education. Republicans slowed the growth of new liberal policies in the states but failed to reverse liberal gains or overwhelm them with new conservative laws. Conservative policies like right-to-work and private-school vouchers did pass in some states, but so did liberal policies like gay rights and drug decriminalization.
Where Republicans gained policy victories, the consequences on the ground were surprisingly limited. Abortion and gun laws changed in every state, but not enough for Republican control to produce changes in state abortion numbers or crime rates. Republicans opposed raising income taxes on the rich, but not enough to exacerbate inequality or accelerate economic growth in their states. They promoted traditional families, but not enough to reduce divorces or increase births.
Republicans did not fail for lack of an ideological agenda. Their state legislative caucuses moved steadily rightward, replacing moderates with far-right Republicans. They nationalized state policymaking, often joining forces in state efforts to counter federal initiatives. They developed cookie-cutter legislation by organizing their allied interest groups and legislators.
But they faced the same problem of conservative parties worldwide: Translating a philosophy of small government and traditionalism into major cuts to public services is quite unpopular. The public sides with protesting teachers once schools are on the chopping block. Expanding health care draws far more support than cutting programs. Republican governors would rather announce new prekindergarten efforts than shutter nursing homes. Republican legislators reconsider their most ambitious tax promises once the consequences are clear. Unlike at the federal level, politicians in the states have to avoid deficits — meaning the consequences of tax cuts are clear to voters. Since Republicans came to power mostly in the states that already had the smallest public sectors, there was less room to cut.
This hardly means that Republican control had no influence. I find that it was associated with modestly lower growth in both government expenditures and liberal lawmaking compared with Democratic control. But perspective is in order. Fourteen states refused to expand Medicaid when given the opportunity under the Affordable Care Act, but that means 36 states doubled the size of their largest program. Yes, many Republican states erected barriers to voting, but the national trends are toward easier registration and far more early voting.
A few states like Wisconsin did vividly reverse ideological course. But Wisconsin had been among the most liberal states in its policies (despite a moderate public). Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s revolution shifted it toward the national norm.
Surprisingly, the biggest Republican state success stories came in partnership with Democrats. After decades of tough-on-crime policies, conservative groups joined with liberal foundations to reform criminal justice in several states. Taking advantage of federal action by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and (especially) Barack Obama, conservative legislators helped greatly expand charter schools. Early childhood education and alternative energy promotion also expanded nationwide, largely on a bipartisan basis.
That may not be reassuring to conservative revolutionaries, still selling the public on restoring limited government. Voters prefer governance that is more sober than the campaign rhetoric that excites them. Republicans have been able to keep winning elections (with help from their control of redistricting) despite limited policy successes.
Newly empowered Democrats can also heed some of the lessons. Liberals have real advantages in policymaking: Constituents tend to request program expansion; new social problems like opioid addiction come with proliferating proposals for new policies; the federal government regularly expands states’ responsibilities; and social values tend to liberalize over time. That means Democrats can slowly expand states’ responsibilities, with lower barriers than Republicans face in their efforts to shrink government.
This has been true in the six additional states where Democrats took full control. Colorado already overhauled health care, enhanced kindergarten and re-regulated oil and gas. Illinois raised taxes and upgraded infrastructure. Nevada expanded voting rights and gun control. New Mexico increased spending by 11 percent and raised the minimum wage by 60 percent.
Better Democratic state electoral outcomes may not always mean leftist policy. American policymaking still has a strong status quo bias, with gridlocked institutions and mobilized constituencies for current policy combining to make it difficult to quickly transform state policy. Ambitious liberal proposals to eliminate private health insurance or fossil fuel production still face uphill battles.
The new Democratic legislators can just ask some of the Republicans they replaced: Voters may like how the revolution sounds on the campaign trail but be skittish when radical changes displace the services they have come to expect.
Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, is the author of Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States.