The current state of the Republican Party reminds one of that old adage: “Beware what you wish for, you might get it.” Beleaguered and publicly at odds with itself, the GOP is also arguably at the apex of its political power since the 1920s.

Source: The Rhodes Cook Letter, April 2018.

The breadth of Republican dominance these days is not just impressive, it’s staggering. They control the White House, both chambers of Congress, a vast majority of governorships and an overwhelming share of state legislative chambers. In short, by the numbers alone, the political world is their oyster.

That could change as early as November. Periods of GOP dominance over the last 90 years have been few and far between—basically, the first two years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency in the early 1950s, and four and one-half years during George W. Bush’s presidency early this century. That’s it.

Democrats could win the House of Representatives this fall, maybe even the Senate, but their longer term challenge is to expand isolated beachheads in the states so that they are a competitive force again at the nation’s grass roots. They are being overwhelmed there now.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, the Republicans were basically a presidential party and not much else. They won the White House often, but rarely controlled Congress, and more often than not, held a minority of governorships. Not so nowadays. Their strength grows as one approaches the grass roots. Donald Trump, for instance, was elected in 2016 with 46% of the popular vote. Republicans hold 51% of the Senate seats, 54% of House seats, 66% of governorships, and 68% of state legislative chambers (according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in January).

The linchpin of Republican dominance is the South. For a century after the Civil War, it was known as the “solid (Democratic) South.” Now, it is almost monolithically Republican. The GOP holds 85% of the region’s Senate seats (22 out of 26), 72% of the House seats (107 of 149, including vacancies), 77% of the governorships (10 of 13), and all 26 state legislative chambers. So important is the South to the GOP that without it there would be no Republican Senate, no Republican House, and no President Donald Trump. He took 91% of the region’s electoral votes (160 of 175), which represented more than half of the 304 that he won nationally. In the South, Trump lost only Virginia.

Following the South in importance to the Republican Party is the Midwest. It is the party’s ancestral home, whether one chooses Ripon, Wis., or Jackson, Mich., as the GOP’s birthplace in the 1850s. Four battleground states critical to Trump’s election are in the Midwest – Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Republicans possess nearly two-thirds of the region’s House seats (60 of 92), all but one of its governors (Minnesota’s Mark Dayton is the lone Democrat), and all but two of its state legislative chambers. Only in the Senate are the two parties fairly even, with 13 seats for the Republicans and 11 for the Democrats.

As for the Democrats, they are strong on the two coasts—the Pacific West, anchored by California, and most of the Northeast, anchored by New York. But Democratic strength in these two areas is not enough to offset Republican dominance in the South and the nation’s heartland. Historically, the heyday of the Republican Party came in a seven-decade period from the Civil War until the onset of the Depression in 1929. The Democrats elected only two presidents in this period, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, and during most of this time the GOP controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue (the White House and both houses of Congress). During this period, Republicans were viewed as the party of Abraham Lincoln, a victorious Union, and industrial growth; Democrats were widely seen as the party of the defeated South and its segregated, largely rural culture.

That changed with the Depression, as Republicans were in complete control of the federal government when the economy went badly off the tracks. Almost overnight, the face of the GOP changed from Lincoln to Herbert Hoover, the beleaguered president at the time of the nation’s worst financial crisis. The Democratic face became that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, offering proactive, progressive government in a soothing, confident manner. And with the Depression, the Republicans went from being a seemingly permanent majority party into a struggling minority.

The GOP was slow to recover from its negative branding. Over the rest of the 20th century, they held the White House, the Senate, the House, and a majority of governorships at the same time for only two years at the beginning of the Eisenhower presidency. (The partisan tally of state legislative chambers is more difficult to historically track.) The GOP would not win both chambers of Congress again until 1994, and the White House along with it until 2000. That period of Republican hegemony ended when Republicans lost Congress during the second midterm election of George W. Bush’s presidency in 2006.

The party’s present domination is the product of gains made during the presidency of Barack Obama. Republicans won the House as well as a majority of governorships in 2010 and maintained control of both since then. In 2014, the GOP picked up the Senate and has maintained control there. And in 2016, they added the missing link, the White House—all the time tightening their control at the state legislative level.

When winning these basic building blocks, Republicans could run as the "party of no." They could pledge smaller government, lower taxes, and a hefty military presence without being judged too harshly on their performance in office, since the Democrat Obama was president. Not so this year, with nearly all the nation’s elected power sources controlled by the GOP.

Whether they can hold what they presently possess is another manner. For better or worse, they will go into the midterm battle under the banner of President Trump, who has forcefully injected himself into the campaign. He has made himself the face of the present-day Republican Party, basically replacing Ronald Reagan. A fighter and a polarizer, Trump will both rally and repel in 2018, and which he does better will be a major factor in the midterm election o outcome.

Document Citation
Cook, R. (2018). Ruling the Roost. Retrieved from
Document ID: rcookltr-1527-107415-2897485
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