Commentary: The 2020 Election is Important, But Maybe Not For The Reason You Think

Feb 19, 2018

Despite all the bad press, the Republican Party is riding high, holding more state legislative seats and governorships than any time since 1922.  They control all three elected branches of the national government.  By contrast, Democrats are fractured, leaderless and outvoted at every turn.

The GOP is certainly not without problems.  The Trump base is, shall we agree, firm.  But it’s only one-third of the electorate.  Establishment Republicans lurch between taking advantage of their current dominance plus Democratic disarray and plotting Trump work-arounds, often very cynically.

Evangelicals, 81 percent of whom voted for Trump, are discredited by their tolerance of Trump’s stormy assortment of misbehaviors.  Republican women are especially conflicted.

But in the last twenty years Republicans have shown they can play the long game – it’s one of the reasons they are where they are now – and I am confident that they are continuing to do so.

Republicans did not gain their current dominant status at the state level by accident.  They understood, much better than Democrats, the importance of building from the bottom up.  Thus, beginning in the 1990s, they focused on state legislatures and governorships, and they really focused on the elections near and especially at the beginning of each decade, because the winners of those elections drew the lines for congressional and state legislative districts for the following decade.  If you control state government you can draw legislative district boundaries in a highly partisan way.  Even if the Supreme Court rules that flagrantly partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional – and I don’t think it will, for reasons I’ll get into in another commentary – partisan redistricting will still take place.

Republicans stealthily populated these low-level, low-visibility races and strategically targeted open and term-limited seats and especially rising Democratic stars – in mid-Missouri, think Wes Shoemeyer, John Wright and Stephen Webber.  Since 2008 they have flipped almost 1000 – 1000 – state legislative seats from Democrats.  Think about that.

While the 2018 election is important, especially since three-fourths of governorships are up for election, you can be sure that Republicans are already looking hard at the 2020 election.  Of course it will matter who the presidential nominees are, but it will matter more who is running for the state legislative seats that will determine control of those states’ governments, and how well those candidates are funded.  And you can be sure that the Koch brothers and their fellow dark-money dispensers will see that they are very well funded indeed.  Because the party that wins the 2020 state legislative elections will own The Twenties, and ten years is basically forever in American politics.

Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.