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What Does New Republican Control Mean in Statehouses Across U.S.?

November 9, 2010 at 6:08 PM EST
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Gwen Ifill speaks with reporters from Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Maine about the state-level power shift that also went the GOP's way in the midterm elections.
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GWEN IFILL: At the same time that the Republicans were claiming a majority of seats in the U.S. House last week, they were also scoring impressive victories in state legislatures across the nation. More than 675 legislative seats and at least 19 legislative chambers went from blue to red. And many of those newly elected Republicans ran on a promise to cut spending and slash state budgets.

Joining us tonight to gauge the impact of this new political landscape are reporters recovering the dramatic shift in four key states: from Minnesota, Mary Lahammer, political reporter for Twin Cities Public Television; from Ohio, Karen Kasler, bureau chief for Ohio Public Radio in Columbus; from Maine, Jennifer Rooks, public affairs host for that state’s public broadcasting network; and reporting on Wisconsin, Craig Gilbert of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who joins me here in Washington.

Craig, I will start with you and also with Jennifer in Maine, because yours are the two states that went completely — that flipped completely from Democratic to Republican in that election.

What happened in the statehouse?

CRAIG GILBERT, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Well, Democrats went into this election holding all the political cards in Wisconsin, and they came out having lost most of them.

I think we saw the same wave in Wisconsin we saw in other places. I think it was compounded by the fact that Democrats really held political power across the board. And so they were kind of more exposed than Democrats were in some other states. You had a Democratic governor who was leaving office with very low approval ratings.

They have been in power at the state level, as well as in Washington, but at the state level for eight years. And spending is an issue that really resonates in Wisconsin.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer Rooks, here in Washington, we think of Maine as being the home of the two moderate Republican senators. But, indeed, the entire state has gone red and more conservative than even those two senators.

JENNIFER ROOKS, Maine Public Broadcasting Network: That’s true. Most of the candidates that did run for the legislature were running on a more conservative platform than Maine is used to.

Gwen, this is really historic. The last time the Maine House of Representatives was Republican, controlled by the Republicans, was 1974. And the last time the executive branch and the legislative branch were Republican was 1966. You know, generations of Mainers have grown up not knowing a Republican-controlled government.

One of the big issues here in Maine, like the rest of the country, was jobs , but also the Republican Party here in Maine really targeted a tax reform, a piece of legislation that was passed last year that shifted or aimed to shift property tax to sales tax for many services. The Republicans led a citizens effort to overturn that.

And then a lot of the candidates who ran for the state legislature targeted Democratic representatives who had supported that tax reform measure.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Lahammer in — in Minnesota, it’s been 38 years since the GOP held the state Senate there. What happened there?

MARY LAHAMMER, Twin Cities Public Television: Huge seismic shifts here in Minnesota. Our House and Senate went from Democratic control to Republican control.

And an interesting note, Gwen, they don’t know — lawmakers do not know what governor they’re going to work with, because, once again, it looks like we’re headed for a recount. Remember, Minnesota was the land of the longest, largest and most expensive recount in history, when U.S. Senator Al Franken took eight months to be seated.

Now, that was a race of about — you know, hundreds of votes. They’re looking at thousands of votes now separating former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, the Democrat, and Tom Emmer, the Republican. They are separated by about 8,000 votes right now, so still some unknowns here in Minnesota.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about those unknowns, because even — because you don’t know who the governor is, then doesn’t that affect the kinds of issues this new Republican legislature would be able to address right away?

MARY LAHAMMER: Absolutely, although, with Dayton’s lead, it is difficult for Tom Emmer to catch up on that. So, it looks like there will be a Democrat in the governor’s office and then Republicans in the legislature. And Minnesotans are quite used to divided government. We just came out of many, many years of divided government.

You will remember we even had an Independence Party governor, that former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, we remember well.

Karen Kasler in Ohio, $8.4 billion budget shortfall, that’s the kind of things that drives elections. Is that what drove yours?

KAREN KASLER, Ohio Public Radio: Oh, absolutely, the economy, the state of the unemployment numbers here in Ohio — while they had been falling for the last six months, they didn’t fall fast enough for a lot of people — and, of course, this budget deficit. The estimates are between $4 billion and $8 billion, but nobody seems to know exactly how big that shortfall is.

And, unlike Minnesota, we know exactly what happened on election night, because the margins were pretty big and pretty substantial for Republicans, except in the governor’s race. It was only a two-point margin between the incumbent Democrat, Ted Strickland, and the challenger, the Republican challenger, who won, John Kasich.

But, like Maine, we have a dramatic shift in terms what the party has done. The House and the governor’s office were both controlled by Democrats going into this election. The Senate has been long controlled by Republicans in Ohio. And now everything is red. The entire state is red, including the U.S. senator that we sent to join our Democratic U.S. senator who is already there, Sherrod Brown.

GWEN IFILL: Craig Gilbert, what are the — who are the voters who drove this shift in Wisconsin?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, it was a different electorate than two years ago and even four years ago. It was older and more conservative.

But I think, more than anything else, it was independent voters, which obviously shifted hard to the Republican Party. And, also, Wisconsin is one of those states where, for example, white blue-collar voters are a majority of the electorate.

And Democrats — they have to be part of the coalition for Democrats to win. They weren’t part of the Democratic coalition in this election. Democrats lost those voters. And, as a result, they lost across the board on Tuesday.

GWEN IFILL: Tell me a little bit more about how different this was than 2008 or even 2006.

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, 2006 was sort of a mini-wave for the Democrats. 2008, Barack Obama won the state by 14 points.

And here you have really the Republican Party’s best election since 1938 in Wisconsin, the most pickups they have ever had. So, I think, you know, it’s — like we saw in a lot of places, you had a big shift on — among voters in the middle on jobs and spending.

And it wasn’t only a different electorate, but Democrats, who have small margins to begin with — a lot of people overestimate how Democratic Wisconsin is — it’s a swing state. And, as a result, a five-point swing has huge political consequences in a state like that.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer Rooks, let’s talk about the independent voters in Maine, because you actually have a non-affiliated line that people — most people are members of, rather than either party.

JENNIFER ROOKS: That’s right. Maine, for a long time, has had more unenrolled voters or independent voters than in either political party. Thirty-seven percent of the voters in Maine are unenrolled, though, earlier today, I spoke with the chairman of the Republican Party in Maine, and I said, do you attribute your success to the swing voters?

And he said, no. We went to the Democrats. He said, we had a mission to show the people of Maine that the Republican Party is the party of the working class. And we didn’t care if they were an independent, a Republican, or a Democrat. We were targeting those people, especially in rural areas, that make $30,000 to $40,000 a year and are angry.

GWEN IFILL: Karen Kasler, when your legislators take their seats and when the governor takes over and gets sworn in, what are the big issues that are going to be driving what happens next? Is it the budget? Is it infrastructure projects? What difference are we going to see because of these — these new folks in these jobs?

KAREN KASLER: It’s absolutely the budget.

Our incoming governor, John Kasich, has said that he will not raise taxes. We have got this $4 billion to $8 billion budget hole. So, something has got to be done. And he’s not going to seek federal stimulus dollars or any sort of help like that. And he’s kind of come out and gone straight at lobbyists and what he calls special interests by saying, I’m driving this bus, and you either get on this bus or you’re going to get run over by this bus.

He is promising that there is not going to be business as usual, as he calls it. But it’s going to be a very difficult, very unpopular budget crisis and budget situation here in Ohio, and is expected to go on for quite a long time.

But Republicans do control all this now, which is the way it was up until 2006 and 2008 in Ohio. So, this is not completely unknown here. It’s just going to be a big change, at least if you listen to what John Kasich is saying about how government is going to operate here.

GWEN IFILL: And, Mary Lahammer in Minnesota, where is that debate going?

MARY LAHAMMER: The issue is jobs, jobs, jobs. It’s all about the economy. And we are staring down a $6 billion record budget deficit.

Now, if our Democrat Mark Dayton in this state, ends up prevailing in the race for governor, he ran on income tax increases, but now he’s up against likely a completely Republican legislature that says no tax increases. So we’re going to have a huge showdown on taxes here.

GWEN IFILL: And, in Wisconsin, as in Ohio, we’re talking — there’s a light rail line which is a big issue, a big infrastructure project, that the federal government was going to send money into the state to…

CRAIG GILBERT: Yes. It’s really pretty amazing.

GWEN IFILL: Is it going to happen?

CRAIG GILBERT: High-speed rail. The state is in line to get $800 million. The Doyle administration — I mean, the Doyle — Governor Doyle was for it. The Obama White House is pushing it. And the new governor ran against it. And now that project has come to a screeching halt in a matter of days.

GWEN IFILL: The other thing we watch carefully with all of these states is that state legislatures are the ones generally who have to draw the district lines to decide who gets elected next time.

CRAIG GILBERT: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Is that what everybody is turning their attention to now already?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, yes. The timing couldn’t be worse for Democrats, because this wave election comes at the start of the redistricting process.

And, you know, you’re going to see, in a state like Wisconsin, where Republicans now hold all the cards, they’re going to be able to draw the lines and maybe lock in some of the gains they made for the rest of the decade.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer Rooks, are you beginning to hear that same sort of thing in Maine?

JENNIFER ROOKS: It’s a little different here in Maine, because, in Maine’s Constitution, there’s a bit of a delay. We won’t redistrict in the next two years. We will redistrict in 2013. Of course, the Republicans plan to hold on to the legislature in two years. And then we will be having the same conversation that the rest of the country is, if they’re able to do so.

GWEN IFILL: So, if it’s not redistricting, what’s the next big clinch point for — that will be as a result of this handover of power in Maine?

JENNIFER ROOKS: Well, you know, it’s like many of the other states. We’re facing a $1 billion deficit. It probably doesn’t sound like a very big number compared to the other states appearing tonight. But, for Maine, with a population of 1.2 million, that is a serious number.

And many people believe, because the legislature and the governor of the past — over the past two years have already cut a lot from the budget, that we’re going to see entire programs going, not just, you know, trimming at the edges of programs, that we’re going to see a seismic shift in the way Maine government works.

GWEN IFILL: You will be cutting actually to go the bone.

Mary Lahammer, let’s go back to the redistricting question in Minnesota. Is this line-drawing going to be a big part of the politics for the next couple of years?

MARY LAHAMMER: Yes, Republican took over at an opportune time. You mentioned, in our state Senate, it’s been since 1972 that Republicans have taken control. So, they are eager to have a chance to draw those lines, although, historically, in Minnesota, usually, a panel of judges ends up drawing the lines here.

GWEN IFILL: How about in Ohio, Karen?

KAREN KASLER: Yes, redistricting is definitely going to be on the — on the front burner here, as soon as the budget is dealt with.

Republicans control all the cards here, which is not an unusual situation. They did back in 2000. And they have talked about bipartisanship, but it seems kind of unlikely.

Let me add one thing, too, about the passenger rail plan. Our governor-elect, John Kasich, has said that he’s going to send back, or he doesn’t — that the train plan is dead. He doesn’t want to do passenger rail in Ohio. So, we’re in the same situation, I think, as Wisconsin is with regard to passenger rail not really being on track, so to speak.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you all briefly the question we were asking all election all night, which is, what is it that was driving voters? Was it actual anger, or was it just try change for the sake of change?

CRAIG GILBERT: Well, I think it was obviously frustration with the economy. I think, to some degree, it was a referendum on President Obama and on Democratic policies.

But, more than anything else, it was the economy. And with Democrats in power, that was the outlet that voters had to express their frustration with the status quo.

GWEN IFILL: That’s in Wisconsin. What about in Maine, Jennifer Rooks?

JENNIFER ROOKS: I would agree with that. I think people were — were angry. And I think that the anti-incumbent wave was very strong. One thing I should mention in our governor’s race, we did have a strong independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, who actually finished ahead of the Democratic candidate.

Many people believe that he took votes away from the Democratic candidate. And, also, our two Democratic congresspeople, Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, did win. So, although this is a huge victory for Maine Republicans in the legislature, unlike some of the other states we’re talking about, Democrats did hold on to some power in the state.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Lahammer, what were voters being moved by in your state?

MARY LAHAMMER: Well, voters in my state delivered a split decision in Minnesota. It looks like all the constitutional offices went for Democrats, and then the legislature went all Republican.

So, we’re not exactly sure what to make of it, besides, you know, they kind of threw all the bums out in the legislature and cleaned house, but returned a lot of incumbents in statewide office.

GWEN IFILL: Karen Kasler, if they’re throwing all the bums out in all these four states we have been talking about, are the bums out there waiting to come back?

KAREN KASLER: I’m not sure. I mean, certainly, in Ohio, the economy and jobs were definitely the issue. And the state went completely Republican. In fact, Republicans had five seats that they targeted in Congress in Ohio. They got all those. And this is especially important as Ohio goes into redistricting, when we’re likely to lose as many as two seats in Congress.

So, in Ohio, the issue is definitely jobs and the economy. And it was a definite message sent to Republicans that that was the party that was the one to be elected. The Democrats were indeed thrown out.

GWEN IFILL: The view from Ohio, Minnesota, Maine, and Wisconsin. Thank you all very much.