Dismayed Democrats, wondering if Bernie Sanders might have fared better against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton did, should be sobered by what happened in Sanders’s home state. True-blue Vermont, ranked by Gallup as America’s most Democratic state, nonetheless elected a Republican governor on Tuesday, when small businessman and stock-car racer Phil Scott, the state’s lieutenant governor, cruised to victory against Democrat Sue Minter, its former transportation secretary.
Scott’s win was part of another significant Election Day at the local level for Republicans, who have made massive gains in the states throughout the Obama years. On Tuesday, in addition to Vermont, the GOP flipped party control of the governor’s mansion in New Hampshire and Missouri, while defending every seat it held, except perhaps Pat McCrory’s in North Carolina, where the election remains too close to call. In addition, the GOP seized control of the legislatures in Kentucky and Iowa. When the dust clears, Republicans will hold at least 33 governors’ mansions, up from 22 when Obama took office. That’s the most GOP governorships in 95 years. Republicans will also boast control of as many as 33 state legislatures, up from just 14 in 2008. In more than half of all states, Republicans now own a “trifecta,” that is, control of the governorship and both legislatures. Democrats have a mere six trifectas.
Republicans are now winning big even in places that still vote Democratic in presidential elections. There’s no mystery about that. Presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton can promise free stuff to people and pay for it by running up the federal deficit or promising to tax someone else—the rich! But local voters know what it means when a candidate declares support for more “investment” and bigger government: property taxes, sales taxes, and the fees that government charges for drivers’ licenses and the like are all going up.
The state Republican tsunami began after Democratic governors, seeing Obama’s 2008 victory as a sign that big government was open for business again, raised taxes dramatically. In 2009 alone, states hiked taxes by $29 billion—the largest aggregate state-tax increase on record. Voters revolted. Republicans running on fiscal restraint won a net of seven new governorships in 2009 and 2010, picking up crucial states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. They kept their momentum going in key 2012 and 2014 races.
The 2016 election continued the trend. In Vermont, Scott promised to ease government’s burden on individuals and businesses. “I will not propose or sign a budget that grows faster than the economy did in the previous year, or wages grew in the previous year,” he said. He pledged not to raise taxes. His campaign benefitted from the mess that outgoing governor Peter Shumlin made of Obamacare. Vermont’s health-care exchange has cost some $200 million to construct and still isn’t fully operable. By contrast, Scott’s opponent, Minter, proposed ambitious new spending and business regulations, including free public-college tuition, to be paid for with new business taxes. She also wanted to put mandates on private businesses to provide paid family leave for employees. Many Vermonters just weren’t in the mood for that message. “The money issues far surpass anything else,” wrote local political analyst Mike Smith the day before the election.
Obamacare and recent Democratic tax increases were also behind Chris Sununu’s victory in New Hampshire. Sununu criticized the cost of health insurance for state residents and pledged to work to end Obamacare, advocating instead for a system that allows insurers to compete across state lines. Declaring that New Hampshire would be “open for business” under him, Sununu also said that he would seek to institute right-to-work to let employees opt out of joining a union if they wish, and that he would look to cut corporate taxes.
Republican Eric Greitens’s victory in Missouri, a state that already has a GOP legislature, was one of Tuesday’s most unusual. While it’s too early to call Greitens, who has never held office, a rising GOP star, his résumé trumps just about every other Republican officeholder. A Rhodes Scholar and former Navy SEAL who won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Greitens founded the nonprofit The Mission Continues, which helps veterans adjust to life back home through community service. Time political correspondent Joe Klein profiled Greitens in his 2015 book, Charlie Mike: A True Story of Heroes Who Brought Their Mission Home, and called Greitens’s achievements, which included volunteering with Mother Theresa in India, “stratospheric.” A Democrat turned Republican, Greitens shook up the political establishment in Missouri, winning the GOP nomination with just 35 percent of the vote. While the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Greitens’s agenda as checking “the usual Republican boxes, calling for right-to-work legislation, holding down taxes and supporting law enforcement,” a number of typically Republican-leaning groups, like the state’s agricultural interests, declined to support him. Echoing Trump, Greitens accused them of being insiders “who don’t want this game to change.” Among other things, Greitens also becomes Missouri’s first Jewish governor.
For eight years, Republican control of state governments has proved a check on the Obama presidency, especially as the president pushed to extend the power of the federal government through executive decree. Republican governors have resisted the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, and GOP-led states have forged the opposition to federal rules on local power plants and on granting legal work status to some illegal aliens through executive action.
Going into Tuesday’s election, with Clinton as the odds-on favorite of most pundits, the Republican Party invested heavily to defend the gains it has made in the states as an essential restraint on Washington. Now, suddenly, the bulging crop of GOP governors and state legislators find themselves with something they’ve not had for eight years—a president and Congress of the same party, intent on changing things in Washington.
Steven Malanga is the senior editor of City Journal, the George M. Yeager Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer.
Photo by @TeamGreitens