The midterm elections really mattered. Not only did they shift the balance of power at the federal level, but they also affected all sorts of policies at state and local levels — from health care to gun rights.
The local and state issues, unfortunately, don't get as much national media attention. Here are six important things that occurred at the state level last night — all of them arguably as or more important as Republicans taking over the US Senate.
1) Republicans came out on top in governor's races
Based on the polling, Democrats were widely expected to face more favorable odds in the gubernatorial races than they did in the US House and Senate. But Republicans actually won pretty handily — Larry Hogan, a Republican, won the gubernatorial election in deep-blue Maryland and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, once considered a goner, managed to beat his Democratic challenger.
As part of Obamacare, state governments are asked to expand their Medicaid programs to include anyone at up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. If they do, the federal government picks up most of the tab. But 23 states haven't expanded Medicaid, leaving 4.5 million Americans in what's called a "coverage gap" — they don't earn enough to qualify for subsidized private coverage under Obamacare, but they also aren't eligible for non-expanded Medicaid.
With so many Republican victories, particularly in large states like Florida and Texas, it remains very likely that these Medicaid programs will remain unexpanded — and millions of Americans won't be able to get health insurance as a result.
2) State legislatures remained mostly Republican
Most state legislatures remained under Republican control. That could be a big deal for abortion policy: after major Republican victories in 2010, legislatures passed 205 abortion restrictions through 2013 — more than the 30 previous years combined. Republicans are also more likely to oppose the Common Core , and legislatures can vote for states to drop the education standards.
3) Four states approved minimum wage hikes
Voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota approved minimum wage hikes above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. All four states are Republican-leaning, suggesting that support for a minimum wage hike is fairly widespread. The approvals continued a chain of victories, reported in greater detail by the Wall Street Journal, for minimum wage measures since 2002. These latest wins indicate that the upward trend for minimum wage will continue, even if Republicans block such bills in state legislatures.
4) North Dakota rejected a big new abortion restriction
North Dakota and Colorado rejected "personhood" amendments that stated life begins at conception. As Vox's Sarah Kliff explained, there was some debate about how the North Dakota amendment would affect the legality of abortions in the state: "Supporters of the amendment say that existing protections in North Dakota law would still allow for abortion. But opponents argue that the law is written too broadly and Measure 1 would make abortion illegal. The director of North Dakota's only in vitro fertilization clinic has said he would close his practice if Measure 1 passed. Embryos are sometimes discarded in treatment and his lawyer has warned that could put workers at risk of legal action."
Meanwhile, Colorado rejected an amendment that would have added "unborn human beings" to the definition of "person" and "child in the state's criminal code, and Tennessee approved an amendment that will let the state legislature pass abortion restrictions.
The losses for restrictions in Colorado and particularly North Dakota indicate that there might be a limit to just how drastically Americans, even in red states, are willing to limit abortion. It also continues what's now become a trend: since 2008, voters have rejected all five personhood initiatives placed on state ballots.
5) Washington state approved stricter gun control laws
Washington state voters effectively increased restrictions on guns by approving one measure and rejecting another. Initiative 594, which voters approved, directed that all gun sales go through background checks. Initiative 591, which voters rejected, would have prevented the state from implementing any background check laws.
The vote for background checks came just a couple weeks after a school shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington state, but Pew Research Center data suggests high-profile shootings don't typically affect views on guns.
The measure could have big implications for advocates in other states looking to push gun control laws. Although tighter gun control laws are fairly popular, politicians tend to stay away from the issue. But if other states can do what Washington state did on Election Day, then activists won't need to lobby cautious politicians.
6) California reduced sentences for nonviolent property and drug crimes
California voters approved a measure that reduces "nonserious and nonviolent property and drug crimes" from a felony to a misdemeanor, which affects current prison inmates. The measure will cut penalties for one in five criminals in the state, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A court decree already forced California to cut its prison population. The measure passed on Election Day will likely continue that trend, but policy experts argue that the state will also need to trim harsh prison sentences for violent offenders as well.
7) Marijuana legalization won in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC
In an unexpected sweep, ballot initiatives for marijuana legalization won in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC. The measures won't take effect immediately. But they do set Alaska and Oregon on track to join Colorado and Washington state, where marijuana possession and sales were fully legalized in 2012.
DC's initiative only legalized possession, growing, and gifting, not sales, but it's widely expected the DC Council will move to set up a regulatory model for businesses in the near future. But the measure will need to clear a congressional hurdle first: Congress has the ability to block the measure, since DC is a federal jurisdiction. The Obama administration has resisted getting involved in DC's local affairs to this point, but a Republican-dominated Congress could tip the scales.
The victories, particularly the widely unexpected win in Alaska, suggest that marijuana legalization is quickly moving forward. Now, the question for drug policy experts and reform advocates is whether legalization should look like the for-profit, commercialized model that seems to be taking root in many states — or whether lawmakers should opt for something that won't encourage for-profit companies to potentially take advantage of drug abusers.