Republicans Target Statehouses
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Republicans want to preserve their power in this fall's state elections. Democrats want to take some of that power away.
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TOM PEREZ: You know, the old DNC had a faith-based approach to midterm elections. You know, we'd pray that the candidates would win, but we didn't do much else.
INSKEEP: Democratic Chairman Tom Perez is working on the Nevada governor's race as we hear elsewhere this morning. For years, Republicans have dominated governor's offices and legislatures. State lawmakers make big choices about Medicaid expansion, taxes, roads, schools. And they also draw the district lines for future elections. Some are future national leaders, according to the Republican who oversees his party's efforts.
MATT WALTER: They're part farm team, and they're part current leadership. People underestimate the impact that state and local governments have.
INSKEEP: Matt Walter of the Republican State Leadership Committee was with the group as the party captured two-thirds of all state legislatures. They've recently lost some ground and hope to avoid losing more.
WALTER: Well, when you're at all-time highs, you are naturally playing defense. And when you have an environment that the historical trend lines are going to tell you that you're going to wind up losing seats, you have to fight against that regression to the mean.
INSKEEP: Aren't there several states where the flipping of a couple of seats could make a significant difference or even change the chamber?
WALTER: Yes. You have one-seat majorities in Colorado, New York, Maine, two seats in Wisconsin. And a number of other states are quite close. Further compounding what you're saying is the narrow margins by which those seats change hands - 10 votes, 20 votes, a thousand votes. So it is critically important for people to get out and vote.
INSKEEP: I guess we should remember that the Virginia House of Delegates after the election in 2017 ended up on the verge of being tied between Republicans and Democrats and they had to have a drawing to decide the last seat. And you guys won the drawing. You got the drawing even though you'd lost a lot of ground in the election. How much of an advantage is it for your side that Republicans were in charge of many state legislatures at the beginning of the decade and so they did the redistricting in many, many states?
WALTER: It's important to make sure that you've got fair and competitive lines. And our contention is that better candidates with better ideas win based on the quality of their campaign.
INSKEEP: There are some pretty dramatic examples where states as a whole voted for Democrats and Republicans ended up in control of the chamber. One of them being Wisconsin in 2012, where Democrats appeared to have a big majority in votes, and yet Republicans ended up with an overwhelming majority in the state legislature. That's drawing the district lines. That's where that came from, right?
WALTER: Well, I would raise a couple of points on that. First and foremost, the system we've designed is to have local representatives that people can count on carrying the interest of that community. We don't have a parliamentary system. It's a winner-take-all system within districts. And so applying a notion that a statewide total somehow should be apportioned out to representatives is fundamentally against the basic structure of our system.
INSKEEP: But if you drew the lines differently in Wisconsin, the election result could have been completely different with the identical set of votes from the public.
WALTER: Could have been. And you could have had different candidates. And you could have had different issue sets. And there are a lot of hypotheticals. But what you've seen within Wisconsin is overwhelming Republican success at the statewide level. You've seen Republican governors, lieutenant governor, statewide elected officials be reelected, which has nothing to do with lines. And you see that all across the country.
INSKEEP: How, if at all, do you advise state legislative candidates to deal with questions which must come up about President Trump?
WALTER: The state legislative level has very little to do with the federal government as it relates to personality issues and dominant figures. Now, there's obviously an environmental impact that's going to drive energy and resources in certain categories. But the best thing any elected official can do to be successful is understand their district and advocate for the things that are important to their constituents.
INSKEEP: You had a wave election in 2010, and that went all the way down to the state level. How do you deal with the danger of a wave election in 2018?
WALTER: Well, certainly, you always need to be prepared for the challenges that come. But when you look at the special elections that have taken place this year, if they're winding up for a wave, I think they're going to be extraordinarily disappointed.
INSKEEP: Would you argue there is something technically or politically that you are managing to do in district after district that Democrats are failing to do in order to be in position to win?
WALTER: Prizing local government. I think part of that is an ideological difference between the two parties. The Democratic and progressive movement seems historically to be more focused on sort of installing a master architect at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And a more conservative philosophy wants to diffuse that power out to the localities.
INSKEEP: That's Matt Walter of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
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Correction Oct. 25, 2018
An earlier Web introduction to this story incorrectly said Republicans control 65 of the 99 state legislative chambers. The party controls 67.