Opinion Columns & Blogs

Carl P. Leubsdorf: GOP still riding the momentum of 2010

Barack Obama gained the presidency in 2008 with a decisive majority and a broad coalition, prompting some to predict a new Democratic era that would realize long-sought liberal objectives.

To an extent, that happened. Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, installed two Supreme Court justices – including the first Hispanic – and, hopefully, with some Republican help, can pass a long-debated immigration measure later this year.

But the political landscape changed again in 2010 when a Republican counterwave gave the GOP control of the U.S. House and most state governments.

At the national level, it resulted in a House GOP majority that vowed to reverse Obama’s initiatives and was averse to seeking compromise solutions.

It also paved the way for many states, including Texas, to enact long-standing conservative goals on abortion restrictions, government unions and voting procedures as well as congressional redistricting plans designed to preserve Republican majorities for the rest of this decade.

The GOP surge allowed Republicans in many states to balk at Obama’s landmark health insurance plan, creating doubt that it won’t meet its objectives of universal health insurance and lower costs.

Upcoming elections – 2014 and 2018 midterms or the 2016 presidential battle – could trim Republican strength. But because redistricting reduced the number of contested districts, the GOP seems likely to retain its majorities until at least 2020 and perhaps even shape reapportionment after that.

The GOP’s 2010 victory was historic. Republicans gained 60 House seats, more than either party since the 1940s. On the state level, it won 690 new legislative seats, 29 governorships and full political control of 25 states, including seven of the 10 largest.

Some subsequent actions were unexpected, because most successful Republican gubernatorial candidates stressed the economy in their campaigns, while attacking Obama’s health and economic stimulus measures, and avoided divisive anti-union and social issues. Once elected, however, they broadened their agendas to include these long-sought conservative objectives:

In Wisconsin and Ohio, Republicans passed measures weakening the bargaining power of government employee unions before 2012 losses took effect. In Michigan, they passed anti-union right-to-work legislation in a lame-duck session before election losses took effect.

In 2011, 83 laws restricting abortions were passed in nearly half of the states. More recently, Texas and North Carolina passed stricter abortion regulations. North Carolina’s Gov. Pat McCrory signed laws requiring abortion clinics to meet the same standards as outpatient surgical centers despite a 2012 election promise that he wouldn’t back new limits.

In at least a dozen states, including Texas, Republicans passed stricter voter identification laws, despite failing to demonstrate voter fraud that needed to be curbed. Most seemed designed to restrict voting by the poor and pro-Democratic minorities.

In redistricting the U.S. House and state legislatures, Republicans strengthened weak incumbents who faced strong challenges after winning in the 2010 wave.

As a result, they lost only eight House seats, maintaining a 234-201 majority nationally although Democrats outpolled them by 1.5 million votes.

Though Obama carried Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republican redistricting enabled the GOP to win 39 seats and the Democrats just 17. Overall, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney carried 226 districts, compared with only 209 for the victorious Obama.

Next year, Democrats hope to win back the House. But they’ll have to overcome the impact of redistricting – and the fact that the governing party usually loses seats in midterms. Only 17 Republicans represent districts Obama carried, while nine Democrats represent ones Romney won.

So it would probably take an unlikely national Democratic wave in 2014 or 2016 to overcome the GOP’s current strength. Meanwhile, that 2010 Republican landslide continues to cast a long shadow over Obama’s two presidential victories, ensuring continuing difficulties for the president’s proposals.