Five states will hold elections this November for governor or state legislature — and a lot seems to be on the line. In the Louisiana gubernatorial race, a Republican victory would mean total GOP control of the state government; similarly, in Virginia, Democrats could take total control with just a few more legislative victories.
And which party wins could have big consequences for state policy. Take the Kentucky gubernatorial race as an example. There, Andy Beshear, the Democratic nominee, has claimed that if Republican Gov. Matt Bevin wins reelection, his cuts to the education budget will be so drastic that some of the last remaining schools in rural communities across the state will close. At the same time, Bevin has argued that Beshear holds radical views on health care — like opposing a work requirement for some Medicaid recipients — and that if Beshear is elected, he’ll continue to support the “government takeover of health care.”
But how high are the stakes exactly? Based on the campaign rhetoric, you might expect state spending to be fundamentally transformed by whichever party is in control. The real-world effects, however, are more limited.
One way we can answer this question is to look at what’s happened in state governments over the last 30 years, as Republicans have been on quite an electoral run. The GOP went from full control in only three state governments in 1992 to 26 in 2018. Democrats have had full control of some state governments during this time period too — including some gains in the midterm elections last year — but their control has been nowhere as extensive as the GOP’s. Government at the state level is seen as a story of conservative success; Republicans gained ground nationwide in elections and built networks of advocacy groups, associations and think tanks — all while becoming increasingly conservative.
But in my new book, “Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States,” I argue that states controlled by Republicans haven’t shifted the size of government as much as one might have expected. In reviewing the programs that were (and were not) implemented, I found that policy either continued to move to the left or it stabilized, rather than moving in a more conservative direction.
One simple indicator I looked at is state expenditures. Despite Republican gains at the state level, states have still been spending a lot more money over time. Even as more Republicans took control since the 1990s, median spending by states doubled (adjusted for inflation).
There were some shifts in spending during this time period, but those often had more to do with economic conditions than with the party that controlled the state government. I also found that most state spending was focused on what are largely thought of as Democratic priorities — health care, education, and social services. And that paying for those services often meant higher taxes and fees, too. State spending has also risen as a share of state economic activity, though more slowly, and state workforces grew steadily until the 2000s.
This, of course, does not sound like what Republican governors and legislators typically promise on the campaign trail, but Republican control of state governments did have some effects. I found that Republican control meant slightly less growth in government as a share of a state’s economy. But it took many years to see these effects and it was not enough to reverse the nationwide upward trend.
So why hasn’t the GOP been more successful in curtailing states’ spending?
One potential explanation is that by the time Republicans took control, states were already on the hook for providing public services that were popular and therefore hard to roll back. GOP officials also faced powerful headwinds: The federal government often required or incentivized new state spending, and legislative staff, state agencies and interest groups frequently fought to maintain funding.
Moreover, not all policy trends are partisan. States move together in some areas as evidence accumulates or opinions shift, regardless of the direction the political winds are blowing. Most states, for instance, have expanded pre-kindergarten education and promoted renewable energy. And states have largely reversed course on strict prison sentences and outlawing gay marriage.
Republicans’ control of state governments did have significant effects beyond spending. Republicans were especially effective at passing legislation across multiple states on social issues like education, abortion and guns. And Republicans have limited some important extensions of government services, despite not reducing state spending over time. Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act offers a good example. Fourteen largely Republican-controlled states have still not expanded Medicaid, despite a good deal of available financial support from the federal government. That’s a real effect with real consequences. Of course, another way to look at this is that 36 states nearly doubled the size of their largest program despite many being controlled by Republicans.
It isn’t that these policies don’t have important ramifications — they often do. But whether a state was controlled by Republicans or Democrats didn’t produce large shifts in indicators like economic growth, inequality, family structure or crime. Red and blue states differ, but not necessarily because their policies transform state economies or societies.
Elections do matter. Voters this November will have a hand in helping decide their state’s policy direction. And as states become increasingly tied to one party, voters’ partisan choices can have an outsized effect on states’ policy agendas.
But we should not expect instant and fundamental change. Even though the two parties often present voters with near-opposite agendas, like with Beshear and Bevin in Kentucky, once they’re in power, the two parties tend to move policy only marginally in the direction they want and the effects of those policy changes are often smaller than anticipated. Republicans’ increased political power did not reverse either the size or scope of state government through the 1990s and 2000s. So while voters should see some impact from their choices at the ballot box this November, it’s still not as much as the campaign ads imply.