Much attention has been paid to the national Republican party and whether it can pull itself back from the edge of the cliff that its anti-science and extreme social conservatism and nativism have brought it to. This can be done. Political parties can show remarkable flexibility when their survival is threatened and many of the leaders in the national party have been warning that it has to shift course.
The catch is at the state and local level, where the country seems to be drifting towards one-party government with Republican dominance. After the last election, 25 states will have Republican control of both the legislature and the governorships, compared to just 15 states under Democratic control. In a large number of those states, the dominant party has over 60% of the legislature.
This is largely because Democratic support is concentrated in urban areas, and so compact contiguous districts can be drawn around such areas that give the Democrats huge majorities, while a much larger number of rural districts go Republican but by smaller majorities. Republican dominance is more a manifestation of the rural-urban divide, and gerrymandering just adds to the lop-sidedness.
Republicans state control was often achieved with the help of the most extreme members of their party, especially its Tea Party wing, and cemented with their sweeping wins in the 2010 elections. The 2014 election may also see a comeback for conservative Republicans, since they tend to do better in election years where there is no presidential race and the tide is usually against the party of the incumbent president. This will give its conservative base renewed vigor and is going to make it much harder for the national party to argue that it needs to change course.
Take the case of Ohio. For all the talk of it being a tightly contested swing state, in the end Barack Obama carried Ohio fairly comfortably by about 4%in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. But both houses in the state legislature have strong Republican majorities and the governorship is in their hands too.
An example of how this state-level dominance is going to cause problems for the national party can be seen with the so-called fetal heartbeat bill that seeks to outlaw abortions once the first heartbeat has been heard in the fetus. This is such a restrictive anti-choice measure that it has even split the anti-choice movement with some opposing it because they doubt its constitutionality.
Tom Niehaus, the Republican leader of the Ohio senate who is leaving the body at the end of the current session due to term limits, said that he would not allow the bill to come up for a vote in the current session of the legislature, citing concerns about its constitutionality and saying that he wanted to focus his attention on jobs and the economy. Outraged proponents of the bill then tried to invoke a little-used parliamentary procedure to try and do an end-run around him and he in turn successfully invoked another parliamentary maneuver to thwart that attempt.
So the bill is going to die in this session but will almost certainly be brought up in the next. But the fact that the Republican senate leader, whose party has 23 of the 33 members in the body, had to go to such lengths to thwart the social conservative supporters of his own party, shows the kind of difficulties that the Republican party faces going forward. It social conservative base is highly vociferous and energetic in making their demands known.
Even if the party does have a makeover at the national level to make their policies more appealing to the rising demographic of young, female, and people of color, they will have this albatross of state legislatures and state party activists weighing them down. The latter will see no reason to change because they are convinced they are right and that they have a winning formula, at least in the short run. As far as they are concerned, their message is paying off and it is easy for them to pin the blame for national losses on national politicians whom they think are not conservative enough or truly reflecting their interests. Mitt Romney has already been characterized as not being a true conservative who was foisted on them.
These people are the ones who dominate the Republican primary process. So it is possible that Republicans will hold their own or even slightly improve their performance in the 2014 elections but their 2016 presidential primary contest will once again be a circus, with another bumper crop of Bachmanns, Cains, Santorums, Gingriches, Perrys or their equivalents doing pretty well and making the party again look nuts.