Thursday, August 1, 2019


By Dominique Paul Noth

The phantom thread under the presidential debates weaves back to how well the Democrats did in 2018, amazingly well given how the Republicans had gerrymandered the states after the 2010 US Census. This underpins why the televised debates seemed so much a dispute between idealistic conviction and skeptical pragmatism

Don’t underestimate the GOP – they still fully control 22 states and have far more state legislators.  But they lost 350 state seats in 2018 and now the Democrats control 14 states -- six were taken from the Republicans in 2018. 

Pew Research provided this graph
to explain trifectas
Pollsters borrow a term more familiar from horse betting to describe the shift – trifectas, when one party controls both the state’s executive (governor) and the legislative chambers (usually two – Nebraska has one and it’s nonpartisan so that state doesn’t count in this pollster math).

It was noteworthy in 2018 that the GOP didn’t pick up a single state in the trifecta game their party had long mastered -- and the Democrats picked up six, another demonstration of how Trump has pushed the nation away from the GOP.

That trend has altered political thinking, affecting the presidential race and the state by state politics, elevating both the interest in forward looking moderates and Green New Deal progressives. Both groups gained in the 2018 election.

As one TV pundit put it: “Democrats ran and won in 2018 on the environment, education funding and health care.” It’s no surprise that many presidential opponents to Trump are running on the same issues.

In every state where Democrats gained a trifecta edge, they introduced bills to expand voting rights.  In several of the GOP trifecta states that party introduced bills to curb women’s reproductive rights, relying on the one gift party leaders think Trump has given them – a more conservative high court that will chip away at Roe vs. Wade or flat eliminate it, as some in their ranks fancy.

Some states didn’t achieve a trifecta despite a proven progressive electorate. In Wisconsin, the GOP lost the vote totals to the Democrats but stayed in legislative power because of the extreme gerrymandering of legislative districts imposed by the Republicans in 2011. In US House races, Wisconsin was the only state in which the party receiving the majority of votes (Democrats) emerged with a minority of congressional seats. 

So Wisconsin got a Democratic governor but a heavily Republican legislature,  a five-seat edge in the state Senate (within 2020 election targeting for the Democrats) drifting into a probably insurmountable  63-36  advantage in the  Assembly.  But the issue of funding education has proven a winner in all the districts for the governor, Tony Evers, who previously served as the state’s chief of public education.  And the GOP margin is not so big as the two-thirds needed to override his vetoes.

He used the most powerful veto pen in the nation more cleverly to serve the public’s demands than did his GOP predecessors. Through nifty methods, he added back some $87 million to public education

The outmaneuvered GOP exploded and filed a lawsuit, hoping their conservative pets on the state supreme court will go along with them.

It is a blatant appeal to partisanship since the legal props are wobbly for the lawsuit, but it reflects what the GOP believes they have bought and paid for -- the courts.

There are also signs that the state GOP may try to use a joint resolution in the legislature to block any attempt by Evers to draw a fair election map after the 2020 Census.  Republican leaders deny this is in the works but Democrats were unmoved by the GOP denials, noting leaders were not ruling out running past Evers on new maps – and noting that the same gang of legal extremists had just filed the lawsuit against the vetoes.

This fight for control in one guise or another rips through all states’ politics.   One result is a total rethinking of a typical belief within the national electorate:  splitting the vote.  If the constituents split their votes among the parties – as they did when the House turned Democratic while the Senate and the White House are in Republican hands – the thinking was that might be better for the nation to not let one party run off with the silverware.

Trump’s behavior has changed that game.  He’s running off with the silverware regardless.

The Democratic gains in 2018 are looming strong for the 2020 election but one of the realities hitting voters is that changing the White House is not enough.  They have to change the Senate too. It has become the place where good bills from the House go to die. It is an echo of what Evers continues to go through in Wisconsin, helped only by the power of his office.

This is the political tension of the day.  It’s going to take a nimble Democratic presidential candidate to make the country look past the damage caused by Trump to what the US should aspire to. That candidate will set the tone for how fast the states have to react. Right now it is a fight between the candidates who want an explosion of change after Trump and the more moderate who want to put the country right and move on from there.

Political observers believe the degree of change will reveal itself most at the state levels -- among voters more closely impacted by policy.  It is a highly partisan environment at all levels but change is more quickly affected at the state level, suggests political scientist Carl Klarner who has made his election database at Harvard open to the public. 

Klarner bluntly states the obvious reality for 2020:  “A party needs to control both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office to significantly change the direction of policy.”

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

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