A decade ago, when the Republican Party was paying the price for the various cataclysms brought on by the George W. Bush presidency—the shockingly inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, the ill effects of the Iraq War, the great economic meltdown—the Democratic Party reached its post–Great Society zenith. It nominated and elected the country’s first African-American president—and he won decisively, against an admired war hero. It sent sixty senators to Washington, which it hadn’t done in forty years (and back then, around a dozen of those were southern conservatives).1 It also sent 257 representatives to the House, its highest number since before the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. Its governors sat in twenty-eight executive mansions, including in such improbable states as Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.
Then came the rise of the Tea Party and the calamitous 2010 elections. The Republicans’ net gain of sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives, giving them control over that chamber after a four-year hiatus, swallowed most of the headlines (the party also had a net gain of six Senate seats). The Democrats, as President Obama put it, took a “shellacking.”
But perhaps the more consequential results happened in the states. Democrats lost a net total of four gubernatorial races, taking them down to a minority of twenty-two governorships. They lost gubernatorial contests in some important large states: Pennsylvania and Ohio; Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder would make his fateful decision about the source of water for the city of Flint; and Wisconsin, where Scott Walker would pass anti-union legislation and steer state government hard to starboard. Florida, governed before that election by Charlie Crist, an independent who had left the GOP and criticized it as extremist, turned to the very conservative Republican Rick Scott. And all of those improbable states listed above eventually reverted to GOP control.
Democrats likewise took a pounding in state legislative races in 2010. Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio had had divided legislatures before that election, and Wisconsin a Democratic one. All four went Republican. So did Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Alabama, and Minnesota. Iowa, Louisiana, Colorado, and Oregon moved from Democratic control to having divided legislatures. In many of these states, the pendulum has never swung back, or it has swung more aggressively in the Republican direction, so that we now have, for example, thirty-three Republican governors and just sixteen Democratic ones, while Republicans maintain complete control of thirty-two state legislatures to the Democrats’ mere thirteen.
It was just one year, 2010, and one election. But it was a pivotal one, because it coincided with the decennial census and the drawing, in time for the 2012 elections, of new legislative districts at the federal and state levels. These newly…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.