Campaigning to Extend, or End, One-Party Rule
AITKIN, Minn.--As he steps to front doors along the winding roads here in his rural House district, State Representative Joe Radinovich announces that he is there to introduce himself, and “in case you want to yell at me about something.”
There is reason to anticipate yelling.
Mr. Radinovich and his fellow Democrats won control of this state’s government two years ago by flipping both legislative chambers, and pushed through tax increases for the wealthiest Minnesotans, acceptance of President Obama’s Medicaid expansion for the poor, and approval of same-sex marriage.
Now Mr. Radinovich, 28, is facing the same Republican rival he defeated by just 323 votes in 2012, and his opponent is mounting a blunt, aggressive campaign accusing Democrats of overreaching.
“The only thing people are more disgusted with than deadlock in St. Paul is one-party control in St. Paul,” said Dale Lueck, 65, a Navy retiree who raises beef cattle and is Mr. Radinovich’s challenger. “Even people who thought that was a good idea at one point have come to be concerned about the kind of excesses that happened,” Mr. Lueck said the other day, then rumbled off in his white pickup to knock on more voters’ doors.
Twenty-three states are now controlled by Republicans, and 13 by Democrats, the most states under single-party rule in six decades.
With Mr. Obama’s poll ratings poor and midterm elections traditionally favoring the party that does not control the White House, Republicans are hoping to add Iowa and Arkansas to the states entirely under their control as well as to break the Democrats’ lock on power in places like Colorado and here in Minnesota.
Democrats view the governors’ races in Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan as among their best hopes of defeating a Republican incumbent and regaining at least some voice in those Republican-held state capitals, and are pouring energy and money into final efforts to get out the vote.
The trend toward one-party control of statehouses has made the states a testing ground for party policies in an era of gridlock in Washington.
Colorado, dominated entirely by Democrats, approved limits on ammunition magazines, background checks on private gun sales and in-state college tuition for some illegal immigrants, and expanded mail-in voting. Wisconsin, held solely by Republicans, sharply limited collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers, reduced early voting and expanded school vouchers. In both states, recall elections followed, and in Wisconsin thousands of protesters marched for weeks around the Capitol, while some counties in Colorado called for secession.
“The last two years were the most active policy-making years in states in years,” said Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “And in some places I think voters may be saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, I think we need divided government or maybe some more balance here.’ ”
Among 36 governors’ races, about a dozen are seen as especially close, including several that will decide whether a single party keeps full control of a state. “What has happened now has been uncommonly extreme and harsh,” said Dick Bond, a former Kansas Senate president, who is among a group of Republicans supporting Paul Davis, the Democrat challenging Gov. Sam Brownback, whose party has carried out a firm agenda of tax cuts since 2011.
With more than 6,000 state legislative elections, dominance in about 15 state legislative chambers might shift and the parties are fighting strategically for the few seats that would allow them to take control of a legislative chamber--and either gain single-party control or, in more cases, end it for the other party.
Republicans have their eyes on upper houses in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Nevada and Oregon, and lower houses in Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and West Virginia. Democrats say they see possibilities for taking control of State Senates in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as Washington and New York (where Republican-led coalitions are now in control), and houses in Arkansas and Michigan.
In Michigan, Democrats are pouring in far more resources than they did in 2010 for get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat Rick Snyder, the Republican businessman-turned-governor, while also pressing to take the State House, which Republicans control by nine votes.
“The voters have a serious case of buyer’s remorse right now,” said Lon Johnson, the chairman of Michigan’s Democratic Party, said, ticking down provisions passed since Republicans took full control there in 2011: prohibiting requirements that workers pay fees to unions as a condition of employment, taxing retirees’ pension income, and increasing regulation of abortion facilities.
But Dick DeVos, a leading Republican donor in the state who once ran for governor himself, said he believed that “one team having the ball” had proved its value in four short years, particularly given the state of the economy when the Republicans took over.
“In Michigan, we were not at a time where we had to be careful about making mistakes,” Mr. DeVos said. “Having partisan bickering and no action, we would have been stuck in Michigan for years. We didn’t have time for that. We’d be stuck in last place. Did they do it perfectly? No. Is it a better place? Yes.”
In Colorado, where the Democrats won full control in 2012, there has already been fallout. Two Democrats were removed in recall elections in 2013, cutting the party’s hold on the State Senate to a single vote, and Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is fighting for political survival in a tight race with Bob Beauprez, a Republican. In the State Senate, Republicans have targeted eight seats in the hope of gaining some say--though by no means complete control.
“It shortens the rudder,” Senator Bill Cadman, the Republican minority leader, said of the prospect of divided government. “You can’t take massive turns in extreme directions when the legislature’s balanced.”
In at least one state, North Carolina, this fight over one-party control has bled beyond the state capitol into a tight race that could help decide control of the United States Senate. Kay Hagan, the incumbent senator, has struck out at Thom Tillis for his role as House speaker in that state’s Republican-run capitol.
After Republicans took sole control of state government in 2012, the state took a sharp turn to the right, cutting taxes and business regulations, reducing unemployment benefits and allowing concealed guns in bars and restaurants.
“The Hagan campaign has managed to make her federal election a referendum on the state legislature and education issues you usually don’t see in these sorts of races,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic political strategist and blogger in Carrboro, N.C.
Here in Minnesota, Mr. Lueck’s is one of a handful of races Republicans are paying special attention to in a push to end the Democrats’ lock on this state’s capital, its first complete dominance over St. Paul in more than two decades. The State Senate is not up for election this fall, and polls have shown Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, ahead of his opponent, Jeff Johnson, a Republican, leaving Republicans to channel much of their attention on winning control of the House, which Democrats hold, 73 to 61.
The fight has centered on a handful of House races in areas like the one around Aitkin--a district with a single stoplight and where a far quieter race was exceedingly close two years ago.
Here, the Democratic Legislature’s decision to approve same-sex marriage in 2013 raised eyebrows; a year earlier, a ballot measure amending the state Constitution to define marriage as between a man and woman failed statewide, but was supported by more than 60 percent of voters in this district. Mr. Radinovich voted to legalize same-sex marriage.
“Our state has turned into a little Obama playground,” Kari Abbott, chairwoman of the Aitkin County Republicans, said. One leaflet here from a G.O.P. Rural Caucus reads: “One party control = Out of Control spending.”
Mr. Radinovich, who snacks on gummy worms along the campaign trail, has had a sudden education in partisan politics. He has been to about 4,500 homes along these roads, seen surprisingly high outside spending on this race--both for him and his opponent--and faced a barrage of questions at these front doors.
As to what has unfolded since 2012 with one-party control in St. Paul, Mr. Radinovich often recalls an earlier time--a government shutdown in 2011 when a Republican-led Legislature could not settle with the Democratic governor on a budget.
“Look, we had years of divided government,” Mr. Radinovich said. “We saw what that did.”