Last Sunday, the New York Times published an in-depth article on the rapidly growing number of states in which one political party — usually the GOP — controls all of state government.
That’s now the case in Michigan, where Republican Rick Snyder is governor and the GOP runs both houses of the Legislature, and has a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court.
The Times article traces the machinations of both political parties in setting up elaborate national networks that raise, distribute and deploy millions — mostly secret and unreported — aimed at one-party domination of state governments.
And it is working. There’s now single party control of the governorship and legislature in 36 of the 50 states, the most in 60 years. Of those, Democrats rule in 13, Republicans in 23.
Here’s how this worked in Michigan in 2010, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a non-partisan watchdog group headed by Rich Robinson. A political action committee set up by the national Republican Governors Association raised $8.4 million, virtually all from wealthy out-of-state donors. Most of this money was transferred to the Michigan Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Michigan political donors sent $8.5 million back to the Republican Governors Association, roughly what the group then spent in “independent” advertising to help elect Rick Snyder, on top of the money transferred directly to the Michigan GOP.
Rich Robinson says he thinks the system was designed to help Michigan Republican business contributors, who could not give directly to the Snyder campaign, exchange their money for contributions from out-of-state individual donors, who legally could donate. Robinson thinks the system was designed to hide the actual sources of money from public disclosure and to grease a political system increasingly funded by big checks from donors far away.
With mid-term elections coming up this year in every state, including Michigan, this system shows how clear-eyed and sophisticated today’s political donors are in realizing they’ll get more bang for their bucks by focusing on state elections than on persistent partisan trench warfare in Washington.
If you succeed in getting one-party government in a state, it’s possible to get a lot done for a relatively small investment.
Here’s one example: In Michigan, for example, our one-party government passed in a single day in December 2012, right-to-work legislation designed to clip the wings of unions, a result inconceivable under divided government. Now, speculation is rife in Lansing that this fall, a Republican-dominated Legislature will pass during a post-election “lame duck” session radical revisions in the way Michigan’s electoral votes will be allocated in presidential elections.
That, in turn, raises the question of whether it’s better for a state to get things done under one-party government — as partisan an outcome as that is bound to be — or endure the gridlock that today seems the inevitable result of divided government.
Anybody who remembers the bitter years when Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm’s policy objectives were repeatedly frustrated by a Republican-dominated state Senate needs to pause a moment before jumping at a quick answer to this question.
Another example: The net result of the Republican sweeps in the 2010 state elections has been many safe GOP congressional districts produced by sophisticated and effective one-party legislative gerrymandering. Incumbents of gerrymandered districts often don’t need to fret much about pleasing the electorate as a whole.
Many observers, including Michigan’s John Dingell, a Democrat who is the longest-serving congressman in history, attribute much of the recent legislative paralysis in Washington to GOP lawmakers in safely gerrymandered seats. Now, that’s not to suggest Republicans are the only ones doing this kind of stuff. As Democratic-dominated California and Illinois demonstrate, both parties are perfectly happy to dominate as much as possible, when they have an opportunity.
All of which raises the disturbing underlying question of whether our political system has managed to evolve in such a way as to focus largely on the needs and interests of partisan insiders at the expense of ordinary citizens who don’t care much about political parties, and just want a system of government that works for them.
Many readers, no doubt, remember Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion says in that case, they would both drown.
So they start off and, sure enough, in the middle of the river the scorpion stings the frog. As they go down, the frog gasps “Why?”
“It’s my nature,” the scorpion replies.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.