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Republicans now have historic majorities in state legislatures. That's a really big deal.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won re-election in Wisconsin, part of a Republican wave that extended to statehouses.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won re-election in Wisconsin, part of a Republican wave that extended to statehouses.
Darren Hauck/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

One Republican victory in the midterm elections has been mostly overlooked. Yes, Republicans took control of the Senate and a surprising number of governorships. But they also won a record number of state legislature seats.

Republicans now control state government outright in at least 24 states, one more than they did before the election. They control at least 66 of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide. And they cut the number of states with total Democratic control from 14 to seven — the lowest number since the Civil War.

State legislative changes in the 2014 midterms

This is a big deal — for the day-to-day lives for people in those states, and for the outcome of elections in years to come.

The GOP's long game to win the states

Republicans made historic gains in state legislatures in 2010. They held on in many states in 2012, or made up for losses in one state with gains in another — even though Democrats won the national election. And they won even more in 2014. This isn't an accident — it's the result of strategic fundraising from national Republicans, beginning in 2010, aimed at engineering statehouse takeovers. Out-of-state contributions were shuffled to states where they would make a difference, particularly as congressional partisanship and gridlock made policymaking in Washington increasingly unlikely.

And at a time of national gridlock, state legislatures have done an immense amount of, well, legislating. Since 2010, 30 states, most controlled by Republicans, have passed a total of 205 new abortion restrictions. That's more restrictions than were passed in the entire first decade of the 2000s, according to the Guttmacher Institute:

Guttmacher chart on new abortion restrictions

Twenty-two states, 18 with Republican majorities, have passed laws making it more difficult for people to vote.

After the Newtown shootings, most new state laws surrounding guns actually eased restrictions on owning and carrying firearms. Seventy new laws loosening gun control were passed, 49 in states with Republican legislative majorities and Republican governors, compared to three in Democratically controlled states.

Then there was the fiscal experiment in Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and a Republican majority in the legislature slashed income taxes. State revenue came in well below projections and threatened Brownback's re-election — but he won, and has promised to accelerate the tax cuts in the future.

That's just scratching the surface. State legislators control K-12 education spending, sentencing guidelines, even the death penalty. The 23 states that rejected the federal Medicaid expansion left 4.5 million people without health insurance. States control the laws around marriage, and can make unauthorized immigrants' lives hard or easy in several ways. They can make it easy or difficult for residents to vote. They decide who can carry guns at a school or a church.

That's not even counting the less dramatic, more quotidian policies they decide: the age of the drivers on state roads; when and where you can buy beer, wine, and liquor; whether your local shops will collect sales tax, and how much it will be; and dozens more.

The consequences of losing statehouses could last decades

Obama announces presidential run in Springfield, Ill, in 20017

Then-Sen. Obama announces his campaign outside the Illinois statehouse. (Chicago Tribune)

One of the most-discussed consequences of Republicans' state legislative takeovers in 2010 was for Congress. Republicans drew the electoral maps in the majority of states, and in the 2012 elections, took back the House majority despite getting fewer votes than Democratic candidates. Democrats also tend to be packed into urban districts, where Democratic candidates win large majorities. But redistricting sharply cut the number of competitive House districts, from around 100 in 2010 to about 39 this year.

The next redistricting isn't until after the 2020 Census. But the overwhelming Republican control of state legislatures already matters for elections down the line in at least one key way: by weakening the Democrats' legislative bench.

Statehouses are fertile ground for candidates for higher office from both parties. Nearly half of all members of Congress started out in statehouses. Forty-three Senators were once state legislators, including 27 Democrats. So were 217 voting House members, the majority of them Republicans. And, of course, there's a former Democratic state senator from Illinois with a pretty important elected office right now.

There are still plenty of Democratic state legislators out there. But the fewer statehouses there are under Democratic control, the fewer opportunities those legislators have to make policy, become visible, and rise through the ranks. That's a loss with ramifications that could last a generation.

Even divided government matters

Larry Hogan, Maryland's GOP governor-elect

Maryland governor-elect Larry Hogan has given the state divided government. (The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Nevada had the most dramatic state legislature flip, and now has a Republican House and Senate and a Republican governor — so policy there could change, and quick. But Democrats' loss of control in either the legislature or the governorship in seven states is significant too.

Over the past few elections, red states have gotten redder and blue states have gotten bluer. Divided government was less common in 2013 than in any year since the 1940s. The result was states pursuing aggressive conservative or liberal new policies, depending on their leanings. As Governing magazine's Dylan Scott wrote last year:

States led by Democrats are moving toward broader Medicaid coverage, stricter gun laws and a liberalized drug policy. They've legalized gay marriage, abolished the death penalty and extended new rights to undocumented immigrants. Republican strongholds are working quickly to remove government from the business sphere — reducing taxes, pushing anti-union right-to-work laws and rebelling against the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They're also pressing forward on some of their most valued social issues, promoting pro-life abortion policies and protecting the rights of gun owners.

Seven of the 10 states where legislatures have approved same-sex marriage did so with Democratic legislatures and Democratic governors. Of the 39 state laws tightening gun restrictions after the Newtown shootings, 25 were passed in Democratic states. This kind of aggressive policymaking on either the left or the right is just much harder with divided government.

Divided state legislatures don't always lead to congressional-style gridlock. (And even single-party states with supermajorities don't always lead to flawless execution of a governor's agenda.) In states with Democratic legislatures and Republican governors, the governor may end up finding common ground on legislative proposals, says Nicholas Johnson, senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"I don't think anyone really expects [Gov. Larry] Hogan in Maryland or [Gov. Bruce] Raumer in Illinois to simply get their way with the Democratic legislatures," Johnson says.

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