The color purple: Republican gains mean divided government in many states

From Maryland to Colorado, as many as 19 states will have power split between political parties. And unlike federal politics, the result could be pragmatism and compromise more than gridlock.

Matt Rourke/AP
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf meets with well-wishers outside the Manchester Cafe the day after he won the gubernatorial election.

This election was pretty much all about Republican gains, but that doesn’t mean more Americans will be living under “red” government at the state level.

Instead, the big import in states is a return of divided government – with control split between the two major parties.

Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Maryland are all shifting from “blue” (all Democratic) to a murkier purple in political tone.

Pennsylvania is going purple thanks to a Democratic victory, as Tom Wolf replaces Tom Corbett in the governor’s mansion. Alaska is still counting mail-in ballots, but the early results suggest that it, too, could shift toward split government – with independent Bill Walker as governor alongside a GOP legislature.

The outcome: more than one-third of Americans will live in purple states – with this election putting more than 40 million people newly in this category.

What does that mean?

Answers will vary by locale, but residents of these states can in general expect something very different from the kind of bluster and inaction that frequently characterizes the federal government, with its rifts between President Obama and powerful Republicans in Congress.

Yes, state politicians can engage in their own share of grandstanding and gridlock. But several forces historically nudge state governments toward pragmatism and compromise.

State governments need to balance their budgets, for one thing, and governors often wield significant veto powers such as the ability to reduce or eliminate spending items they don’t like. Those rules can force two sides to the bargaining table.

Beyond that, state governments operate in a realm that’s not far removed from the voters they serve. Elected officials have highways to maintain and schools that need funding – and citizens who will hold them accountable if they don’t get the job done.

“In most states, most of the time, it’s eminently practical,” says Christopher Mooney, a University of Illinois political scientist who studies state governments. That includes states with unified as well as split control.

“In some ways it's going to be less divisive” in the purple states, Mr. Mooney says. “You’ve got to come more to consensus,” he explains, whereas single-party rule can sometimes lead to actions that rankle moderate voters as well as the opposition party.

Taxes and budgets will be at or near the top of priority lists in newly purple states. Republicans Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Larry Hogan in Maryland, for example, won upset victories for governor largely on voter concerns about fiscal management.

The tenor of purple government won’t be uniform across America.

In New York, a state Senate that’s now fully under Republican control may provide Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) with leverage against a Democratic House for his relatively centrist fiscal plans.

But, in contrast to the strong powers that governors typically wield, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) will face an all-Republican legislature that now has a veto-proof supermajority.

Purple America will include a smattering of Western states (Washington, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado). But most of its states are in the Midwest region (Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky) and a Northeastern swatch of nine states running from Maine and New Hampshire to Virginia and West Virginia.

Next year, well over 100 million Americans will reside in these split-control states, as will at least one office-holder who's a potential presidential nominee: Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Still, the biggest share of Americans – nearly half – will live in states that are bright red. That Republican-state share won’t change much due to the election, although the composition shifts a bit. Republicans lose their lock on Pennsylvania but now have even fuller control of the South (with Arkansas), as well as the Plains and states in other regions such as Nevada.

The altered political landscape after this election is also a reminder of how fast things can change.

Before 2010, more Americans lived under Democrat-controlled states than under Republican ones.

Now, if Alaska ends up purple and Vermont’s legislature reaffirms Pete Shumlin (D) as governor, just seven US states will be Democratic, compared with 24 under Republican control and 19 with split control. That tally counts Nebraska as Republican in practice, even though its legislature is officially nonpartisan.

One reason state control can be volatile is that voters are often willing to consider governors of varying political stripes, even when legislative control is more consistently with one party.

Mooney cites Massachusetts as a classic example, with its solid blue legislature and its penchant for picking Republicans like Mitt Romney as well as Democrats for governor. And California, which just reelected Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and a Democratic legislature, not so long ago had Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.

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