One of the most important electoral trends of the last generation is the nationalization of state politics. Whereas state elections used to be fought on their own terms—Democratic state legislators could regularly win in districts that voted for Republican presidential candidates, and GOP governors could win in states that gave their electoral college votes to the Democrats—the steady rise in straight-ticket voting (driven in part by voters’ increasing antipathy toward the opposing party) means that, to quote a recent political science paper, “all politics is national.” The once-robust distinction between state and national politics is collapsing.
One cause (and consequence) of this trend is the deterioration of state-level political parties. In an in-depth report for Brookings, Raymond La Raja and Jonathan Rauch argue that state parties are weaker than ever before, in large part because of the legacy of McCain-Feingold (the 2002 campaign finance overhaul), which turned them into “the most regulated entities in campaign finance.” A number of party officials interviewed in the Brookings report echoed this sentiment:
• “We believe we are fighting for our lives in the current legal and judicial framework, and the super PACs and c(4)s [outside groups] really present a direct threat to the state parties’ existence” (southern Republican)
• “I think the state parties will continue to decline because of all the legal restraints we have unless people really concentrate on how to strengthen them” (southern Democrat)
• “The internal conversation we’ve been having is, how do we keep state parties alive? Campaign-finance reform has hurt us to the point where we’re almost disabled in many states” (mountain Democrat)
The fixes La Raja and Rauch offer—specifically, lifting contribution limits for state parties and softening some regulatory and reporting barriers—deserve a careful look from policymakers. At a time when the agendas of both major parties seem stale, institutional party’s agendas seem stale—and, indeed, when one of those parties may be undergoing an historic realignment—we should be doing everything we can to encourage sub-national political innovation. Strong state parties are an excellent vehicle for Republican and Democratic politicians at the state level to try new policies, and build new coalitions, without the constraints imposed on them by their national brands. Federalism has always been one of our nation’s greatest assets; perhaps it can help lead us out of this current period of political discontent.