All the attention understandably has focused on Washington this year: a new Congress with enhanced Republican control. A new and politically unpredictable president coming to town while methodically constructing a new administration. A Democratic Party in disputatious disarray, still stunned from losing another national gimme.
But what’s happening out in the country, that vast area of scattered light patches that elites fly over while watching a movie, will play a far more important role in setting the United States’ near-term future and fortunes.
And in those little-noticed places, Republicans have in the past six years quietly engineered, political piece by political piece, a revolution in governments unseen in the United States for a century.
The party of Lincoln, a Middle American who was the 16th president and the first of the GOP’s 20 presidents, has the opportunity to collectively deliver on voters’ confidence far from the bright lights of the myopic D.C.-centric media and set Republicans on a long-term path of electoral success.
President Barack Obama, who promised a smooth presidential transition, has claimed that although his name was not on the ballot in recent elections, his policies were. The voters’ verdict is in. Since he took office Democrats have lost 69 seats in the House of Representatives, 13 Senate seats and 12 governorships.
Big cities aside, here’s how massive the GOP’s political penetration has become nationally: In legislative sessions convening across the country these days, Republicans control 33 governors’ offices and both houses in 25 states. Democrats totally control five states, down from seven; that’s the fewest since the Civil War, when there were only 34 states.
Republicans won 46 additional state legislative seats in November, to give them 4,170, just under 60 percent of the total. Fully 27 state legislative chambers have turned Republican during Obama’s reign. The GOP now controls 33 governors’ chairs and every chamber in the South, the most powerful position since the party’s founding in 1854.
This is important to deliver on the conservative agenda voters have chosen, such as education revisions, tax cuts and right-to-work laws. And if the party can hold that control, it will be in position to draw legislative districts after the 2020 census, as it did after 2010.
But Republican success far outside the Beltway is also key for the future, since states are the parties’ political farm teams. The Democrats’ bench is short – and elderly. Members of their top House leadership are all in their mid-70s.
Much fun was made of the immense field of 17 GOP presidential contenders last year, average age 47. But it displayed youth and a depth of party talent.
Ironically, it was an adopted Republican turned populist – a rich New Yorker with his own jumbo jet – who showed the most astute political reading and attentiveness to the frustrations and desires of that flown-over mid-America. We’ll see if he delivers on their hopes and trust.
But what came out of Nov. 8 was a Congress controlled by Republicans. A White House controlled by Republicans. And if Donald Trump’s promise is fulfilled, he’ll name a strict constructionist judge to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy, and any other imminent openings among those aged jurists, to solidify conservative control there for years.
And not by accident, Trump’s trusted vice president is Mike Pence, a man with long leadership experience on Capitol Hill, deep connections among party leaders there and around the country, and a successful term as chief executive of one of those flyover states, Indiana.
State Republicans are counting on him to be a sympathetic ear and accessible advocate for their needs and interests in the Trump White House and Cabinet.
And if, as expected, a Trump administration devolves considerable powers back to states, Pence will alert federal bureaucrats to the substantial financial and regulatory burdens that come, even inadvertently, with Washington decentralizing responsibilities.
The political setting is, thus, perfect for historic success. But looking back at history, never underestimate the proclivity of Republicans to slide into distracting and self-destructive squabbling, especially when enduring success.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.