All Red or All Blue, State Legislatures Run to Partisan Sides

Source: By Timothy Williams, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Hunter Cantrell, a new state representative, greeted a group pressing for gun control measures at the Minnesota State Capitol.Tim Gruber for The New York Times

ST. PAUL — Days after nearly dying during cancer treatments, Hunter Cantrell, a 23-year-old university student, made what seemed a quixotic decision: He would run for the Minnesota House of Representatives to plead for affordable health care for all.

To the shock of nearly everyone, Mr. Cantrell flipped a Republican-held seat in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, and this month, he became one of nearly 1,700 candidates who took the seat of an incumbent in state legislatures across the nation.

The vast majority of the newcomers are Democrats, and as legislatures started new sessions this month, they were already shifting the debate in a number of states to liberal pledges made during their campaigns, including lowering health care costs, promoting gun control, and expanding access to college.

Republicans continue to hold majorities in most of the nation’s state capitals, as they have in recent years, but Democrats now control six new legislative chambers, including the Minnesota House of Representatives. Along the way, though, Minnesota — where Republicans hold a narrow majority in the Senate — became the only remaining state in the nation where control of a legislature is divided.

Even in an era of single-party dominance in state legislatures, it is a stunning notion: It is the first time in more than a century that only one state has split control of its legislative chambers, and is one more indication of the depth of the nation’s bifurcated political sensibilities.

Minnesota may be the only place where lawmakers like Mr. Cantrell will be forced in the coming months to hash through both liberal and conservative political proposals to reach compromises. The state has become the lone state laboratory for testing whether bipartisanship — which has failed spectacularly on the federal level — can work in this moment.

“Minnesota is a results-oriented place, so the advantage will go to the party that is the opposite of Washington, D.C.,” said Pat Garofalo, a Republican and a representative in the State House. “But if the Democrats propose crazy left ideas, with a split government, they won’t become law.”

To be sure, a mix of governors — including Democrats elected in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans control state legislatures — will add checks on some of the state capitals otherwise controlled by single parties. At least 12 states have governors of a different party than their single-party legislatures. And a battle over leadership has created uncertainty in the Alaska Legislature, even as Republicans hold a numeric advantage.

The Minnesota State Capitol, home to the only divided legislature in the nation.Tim Gruber for The New York Times

But in the first weeks of the year’s new lawmaking sessions, some legislatures were already racing toward opposite visions, as those controlled solely by Democrats were busy pushing liberal measures and those ruled by Republicans were advocating conservative agendas.

In the opening days, Democrats who have vaulted to positions of full control in their legislatures (Colorado, New Hampshire and New York), achieved parity (Minnesota), or solidified their power (California, Nevada and New Mexico, among others) have wasted little time.

In New Hampshire, one of 18 state legislatures controlled by Democrats after both of its legislative chambers flipped in 2018, lawmakers have already banned firearms in the House chamber over the objections of Republicans, and have voted to require every lawmaker to undergo sexual harassment awareness training. Up next, the Democrats say: a family medical leave bill.

In New York, where Democrats won full control of the Legislature, lawmakers have approved a bill that offers undocumented students access to state financial aid and scholarships and another that expands protections for the state’s abortion laws.

In Colorado, where Democrats took the Senate and already controlled the House, lawmakers have introduced bills to expand access to affordable health care, allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, and give 100 teachers as much as $5,000 a year each to help pay off college loans.

And Democrats who now control the Senate in Maine say they are seeking several measures that had been blocked or slowed by Paul LePage, the former Republican governor. Among them are Medicaid expansion and food stamps for asylum seekers.

In the 31 states that have Republican legislative control (as well as Nebraska, whose single-chamber legislature is officially nonpartisan but leans conservative), lawmakers were also pressing their advantage.

In Ohio, the Legislature is poised to ban abortions once a fetus’s heartbeat is detected, which could be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. In Missouri, Republicans are considering a so-called right-to-work law, even though voters rejected the idea last year. And Alabama Republicans are contemplating building more prisons.

“We are in a time when there is a lot of division in our politics, and the divisions are along social, economic and geographic lines,” said William T. Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group that serves members of legislatures.

States in 2018 elected a historically diverse group of candidates, with more women than ever before seated in state legislatures — about 28 percent of the total. Women now outnumber men in Nevada’s Legislature and in Colorado’s House.

In all, 27 percent of members of state legislatures’ lower chambers and 32 percent of upper chambers defeated incumbents to win seats in November, according to an analysis by the Council of State Governments, a nonprofit organization that provides policy guidance to governments.

In Minnesota, the only state with a divided legislature, the risk to each side is clear: If either party presses bills that stray too far from the center, they could fail to pass their agenda. But if lawmakers scale back their proposals, they might be seen as failing to deliver on campaign promises. And if Democrats, who control the Minnesota governor’s office as well as the House, try to force through liberal policies, they could be seen as overreaching in a state that is not wedded to either party.

Democrats, however, say they intend to be assertive.

“We need to demonstrate that we are ready to take action to improve people’s lives and not be overly cautious,” said Representative Ryan Winkler, the Democratic House majority leader.

Among the Democrats’ plans were measures for paid family leave, a public option health care plan, more early childhood education and gun control limits requiring background checks and “red flag” laws to temporarily take guns away in some cases; Republicans, who hold a two-seat advantage in the Senate, have promised to block gun limits.

Mr. Winkler said that would provoke more anger, particularly among female voters in the suburbs, where Democrats flipped seats. “There is now a political downside to not doing gun safety legislation,” Mr. Winkler said. “Suburban Republicans have to wonder how they’re going to survive if they are not going to cooperate with us.”

But Mr. Garofalo, the Republican House member, said backlash against President Trump had caused the defections in the suburbs, and warned that a liberal agenda would send suburban women fleeing back to Republicans.

“I don’t think the Democrats will go what I would call the ‘Bernie Sanders route,’ or it will be easier for us to take back the majority,” he said.

Mr. Cantrell, the new Democratic State House member, sounded more concerned with delivering on promises he had made as he told his own health care story along the campaign trail in the suburbs around the Twin Cities, where many of the people he talked to said they had voted Republican in the past. A 10-day stay in the hospital had cost $100,000. He was only able to afford it because he was covered by his mother’s health care plan, he said.

He has called for an expansion to the state’s health care program for the poor, lower drug costs and more transparency in prescription drug prices. He sounded hopeful about his prospects, even in a divided government.

“In some districts, people are feeling a sense of disarray and disorder and they want to return politics to the people and return to civility,” he said. “I believe there can still be a light and hope in politics and that we can have a politics that can unite and not divide.”