The Shifting States of America: Election Surprises From Blue Kansas to Trifectas

The Shifting States of America: Election Surprises From Blue Kansas to Trifectas

The fact that former felons were permanently disenfranchised had the effect of taking 1 out of 5 Black voters out of the electorate permanently

SourceTom Williams/Getty

Why you should care

Just because Washington is stalled doesn’t mean the states aren’t changing America. 

For Washington, Tuesday’s election results portend a divided, gridlocked Congress. Red states and blue states, metropolitan areas and rural expanses have never seemed further apart politically. But across state-level races, America has not lost the capacity to surprise. An embrace of Medicaid expansion continues apace into deep-red territory, labor unions are mounting a real comeback across the Midwest, and anti-abortion activists are showing strength against political headwinds.

If you’re looking for a change in the coming years, look to the states.

Medicaid Expansion

Going into election night, it seemed as if Andrew Gillum could be the unlikely Democratic progressive to create an upset and expand Medicaid access in a previously red state, Florida. But the results revealed that it was a less heralded Democrat who had prevailed in a conservative state more than 1,000 miles away: Laura Kelly, who upset Trump favorite Kris Kobach in Kansas.

Kelly’s surprise win opens the door to expanding Medicaid access in the Sunflower State. After all, Kansas was just a pen stroke away from doing it a year ago, but Republican Gov. Sam Brownback refused to sign the bill passed by the Statehouse. With Kelly’s win and the power of the gubernatorial pulpit, expansion is now a real possibility. And if Kansas does eventually pass Medicaid expansion under Kelly, it will join Idaho, Nebraska and Utah, which all did so through ballot measures on election night.

New Trifectas

Democrats come away from election night with six new state government “trifectas,” meaning they now have control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansions in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Illinois, New York and Maine. Colorado was a major target of Flippable, a Democrat-tied group designed to turn statehouses blue. Flippable co-founder Catherine Vaughan points to what happened after Democrats achieved a trifecta in Washington state last year. “We saw the state Senate pass legislation to ban gay conversion therapy, ban bump stocks, expand reproductive [health] coverage for state employees, an automatic voter registration bill,” Vaughan says. “So I think you could see more changes like that in Colorado.” Notably, Colorado also elected America’s first openly gay governor, Jared Polis.

If I were Donald Trump this morning … compared to Bill Clinton in ’94 or Obama in 2010, I would be feeling pretty good.

Ralph Reed, Faith and Freedom Coalition

Conservatives Claim Victory on Anti-Abortion Laws

If the more conservative Supreme Court reverses or weakens Roe v. Wade, it sends more power to the states to make decisions about abortion. And Tuesday’s results heartened conservatives in this area. Sure, in those states where chambers did switch, “it’s going to be very difficult to get pro-life legislation to move,” admits Ralph Reed, head of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.

But Republicans kept legislative majorities and won governorships in Ohio and Florida — the latter is especially interesting, as Ron DeSantis will have the ability to swing the state Supreme Court red with his choice of three new justices. And in Iowa, where Republicans narrowly held on to the governorship and control of the state Senate, conservatives protected what they call the strongest “pro-life” state legislation in the nation — banning abortion after six weeks when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. (The law has not been implemented, amid a court challenge.) That’s “in a state where Republicans were losing congressional seats, and four years ago we were not even able to move pro-life legislation onto the floor,” Reed says, adding that, overall, conservative losses weren’t as bad as expected. “If I were Donald Trump this morning … compared to Bill Clinton in ’94 or Obama in 2010, I would be feeling pretty good.”

Voting Rights and Redistricting

While Florida didn’t end up electing its first African-American governor, it did make waves of another sort. Nearly two-thirds of voters approved a ballot measure, Amendment 4, to restore the right to vote to felons, so long as they were not convicted of murder or sexual assault. The measure expands Florida’s electorate by an estimated 1.5 million voters, roughly one-twentieth of the overall population. “It absolutely reshapes the political calculus. The fact that former felons were permanently disenfranchised had the effect of taking 1 out of 5 Black voters out of the electorate permanently,” says Carolyn Fiddler, political editor of the liberal blog Daily Kos and a former Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee operative. While Republicans now hold all statewide offices in Florida, those victories were razor-thin, and that addition would “more than likely benefit Democrats,” Fiddler adds.

These midterms have the opportunity to reshape elections for decades to come. With redistricting looming large after the 2020 elections, control of state legislatures becomes even more important. In Michigan, Democrats took over as governor and secretary of state, the latter of whom will be in charge of implementing an anti-gerrymandering measure called Proposal 2. That is a big deal in a state where GOP candidate Donald Trump won by only 10,000 votes in 2016, while Republicans won nine of the state’s 14 congressional seats (although Democrats settled the score last night, picking up two seats to give the state an even 7-7 partisan split). Similar proposals to make the districting process fairer — primarily through nonpartisan line-drawing — were also approved in Missouri, Utah and Colorado.

Labor Unions

The labor movement was dealt a devastating blow this summer when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that it was an infringement on the free speech rights of public sector employees to require them to pay union dues. But while that ruling occurred in Washington, its roots were in an executive order made during the early days of Bruce Rauner’s run as governor of Illinois.

Now Rauner is gone, after Illinois voters overwhelmingly booted the first-term governor out Tuesday night for Democratic venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker, who broke campaign finance records by spending more than $160 million of his own money, including launching some $80 million in ads. Workers in the Land of Lincoln will have to see if the pro-union candidate puts his mouth where his money was and begins to reverse some of the dismantling done by Rauner. It will be a complicated balancing act, considering the state’s nearly $15 billion budget deficit and public sector workers’ public sparring with his predecessor for more funding and protections.

Meanwhile, another major cause of labor — an increase in the minimum wage — was passed through ballot measures in Missouri ($12 per hour by 2023) and Arkansas ($11 per hour by 2021). Arizona voted to repeal a controversial school voucher program that had been targeted by teachers unions.

North of Chicago, union activists in Wisconsin finally took out a longtime foil, overthrowing Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has been a target for liberals ever since he ended collective bargaining for state public sector unions in 2011. His replacement, Democratic schools superintendent Tony Evers, is likely to bring a union-friendly air into the governor’s mansion, although he will have to continue working with a state Legislature that remained in Republican control despite the blue wave nationwide. “We’ll finally see the erosion of collective bargaining rights halted or at least drastically slowed,” Fiddler says.

A Modern Cash Crop

Marijuana cultivation and sales stalled in North Dakota but passed in Michigan, making it 10 states nationwide that have legalized pot. Missouri and Utah also passed laws approving medical marijuana use. “Now that more than 30 states have enacted comprehensive medical marijuana laws, it is time for Congress to step up and address the issue at the federal level,” said Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project. As the states change, so too could the nation.

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