Brian Cummins has been mayor of Fairview, Montana, for so long that when you ask him about the oil boom he replies, “Which one?” The first one he remembers occurred in the early 1980s, just before he became mayor of this tiny town. The second is still going, though it’s slowed in recent years. Even a diminished boom has created trouble for Cummins and his town.
Fairview sits on the Montana-North Dakota border, and its problems are tied to that invisible state line. While most of the recent boom’s oil originated in North Dakota — and most of its tax revenue stayed there, too — the oil workers spread across the region, looking for places to live. Fairview more than doubled in population, from 840 to about 1,800, and it struggled to house and feed those newcomers. (“You’d better be at the store when the milk truck comes in,” Cummins recalled, “or you weren’t getting any milk.”) Even now, with the population back around 1,000, the town remains in a precarious spot. Fairview’s sewage lagoon is close to capacity; most of its streets need repairs. Worst of all, there is serious wear and tear on the town’s pipes from supplying water to the companies doing the fracking, a process that requires pumping a lot of liquid below ground.
In particular, Cummins frets about the long stretches of cast iron water pipes that date to 1935. If one of the pipes leaks, especially in the middle of Montana’s winter, it’s a disaster. “It costs me $30,000 every time one breaks, especially when it’s 30 or 40 below,” Cummins said. “And it seems like that’s always when they want to fracture.”
Fairview can’t afford the estimated $1.3 million it would take to fix the cast iron pipes. The town needs help now, and it needs the state of Montana to provide it. While North Dakota’s tax laws left its towns swimming in oil money and upgrades, Montana’s laws funneled most of its smaller share to the counties and the state. Yet for six years, the politicians in Helena have failed to pass a comprehensive infrastructure bill. When he heard about the latest defeat of a bill that would have split as much as $100 million among communities like Fairview, Cummins couldn’t believe it. “Everyone was hoping for some sort of help,” he said. But because he lives in Montana and not North Dakota, he’s stuck with another winter of hoping for the best.
Each presidential cycle, someone scolds Americans for not paying enough attention to state politics. (This someone is usually on Twitter.) The criticism both is and isn’t correct. It’s true that a lot of people ignore the policies behind their sewage systems and water pipes. And most of us — voters, politicians, data-driven websites — spend far more time debating national politics than the state (or local) varieties. Yet it’s also true that, in the last few years, we’ve talked a ton about state issues. Voter ID laws, abortion restrictions, minimum wage hikes, legalized marijuana, gun control, LGBT rights — each of these is an exhaustively covered example of state politics.
In 2016, then, the most interesting thing about our state politics is how these two strands, the everyday and the ideological, intersect. State politicians are becoming more partisan and more polarized, much like national politicians. But this party-driven approach isn’t just influencing left-right issues like abortion or guns. It’s spreading through every part of state government, with surprising and potentially troubling results. It’s why Fairview’s water pipes haven’t been fixed — for reasons that have little to do with water, oil or even Montana itself.
Before we dive into the states and their political divide, allow me a bipartisan caveat. The examples I’m highlighting will center on Republicans, because Republicans have become more extreme at the state level, just like at the national level, and because state Republicans are cleaning up: The GOP currently controls 68 of 98 state legislative chambers and 31 of the 50 governorships. One can imagine a future where Democrats create a similar ruckus. But for now, most state policies come from Republicans.
Those policies influence every part of our day-to-day lives. Start with the obvious ones — roads and utilities, of course, but also health care, education and taxes (tobacco, gas, property, sales, income, etc.). The state you live in determines tort law, contract law and a big chunk of criminal law. If you live in Connecticut, for instance, you’d need to steal $2,000 worth of goods for it to count as a felony; cross over to Massachusetts and that threshold drops to $250. With more serious crimes, the state you live in can determine whether you’re eligible for post-conviction DNA analysis or even for the death penalty. The state you live in determines whether you can request a physician-assisted suicide. It can determine how long you stay on food stamps; it can determine the type of fireworks you buy. The state you live in determines whether your teenager receives abstinence-only sex education; it also determines whether the teenager driving in the other lane is allowed to text in the car.
Although some of these policies are divisive, far more are essential and mundane. In fact, for each new law Congress passes, states pass more than 75 of their own. Those laws loom even larger when we remember that fewer and fewer Americans move. According to the 2010 American Community Survey, six in ten Americans were born in their current state of residence. Your state shapes your world, especially if you can’t (or don’t want to) leave.
Despite the impact of state politics, most Americans neglect them. This starts with the professionals. From 2003 to 2014, local newspapers lost a third of their full-time statehouse reporters (overall staffing decreased at the same time); 86 percent of local TV stations lack a single statehouse reporter. Even if there were more coverage, it’s not clear that readers or viewers would notice. One 2012 survey of Tennessee adults found that only 12 percent said they followed state politics “very closely”; 36 percent said they followed them “fairly closely.” But only one in five respondents could name their statehouse representative.
Now, to be fair, conjuring up your state rep can be tricky, and pollsters have found similarly anemic identification rates in other states dating to the 1960s. A simpler measure of awareness is to ask voters to identify the party that controls their state’s legislature. Even here, though, the results are lackluster. When the American National Election Studies’ Evaluations of Government and Society Study asked this question in 2010, 47 percent of registered voters got it right, far fewer than got it right for Congress.
This apathy spills over to the pool of potential candidates for office. Take Georgia, a longtime red state that for a while seemed like it might turn purple or even blue with Donald Trump on the GOP ticket. Even if Democrats do well there on Nov. 8, they won’t capitalize in the state legislature — 80 percent of Georgia’s incumbents face no challenger this fall.
That’s the good news for incumbents everywhere. Here’s the bad: if more than half of voters don’t know who runs the statehouse, then those same voters also don’t know whom to reward (or to blame). The best place to see this is in the research of Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University who specializes in state legislatures. Rogers has analyzed decades of data across dozens of states. He’s tested various factors to see how they might influence voters: the state’s economy, tax rates, homicide rate and student reading scores, among others. What Rogers has found is that these measures have little or no effect on whether a state legislator wins re-election. Instead, state races correlate largely with presidential politics — whether the voter approves of the president and whether the legislator belongs to the president’s party. Crafting great (or terrible) legislation on jobs or criminal sentencing doesn’t seem to matter. “Whether or not state legislators are elected,” Rogers said, “has very little to do with them.”
The most surprising thing about Rogers’s findings is their consistency. The proportion of seats a party wins in the U.S. House overlaps to an uncanny degree with the proportion of seats it wins in the state houses, and this national-local link stretches back to World War I. In other words, it’s not just that most voters ignore what’s happening at the state level — it’s that they’ve ignored it for a century or more.
The problem is that while the voting patterns haven’t changed, the national parties have.
What’s happened to the national parties is a bleak and well-known story: Washington, D.C. has become more extreme, more polarized and more driven by negative partisanship. Now that partisanship is oozing into state capitals.
For most of the 20th century, state government remained plodding and traditional, animated more by fixing problems than by prosecuting beliefs. Voters saw little difference when electing Democrats or Republicans, state by state, and most of the big policy changes came from the federal government (the New Deal) or the courts (Brown v. Board of Education). Together, the states drifted slowly to the left, helped by steadily increasing federal grants.
In the 1980s and 1990s, though, state politics changed. Recently, political scientists have started to build tools that analyze trends at the state level. One team has compiled thousands of legislative votes and used them to track changes in the ideology of state legislatures, similar to what DW-NOMINATE does for Congress. Another team has assembled a data set of nearly 150 individual policies and used it to chart each state’s policy outcomes since 1936. These tools make it possible to compare states to each other and to their past selves, and in both cases it’s clear that over the last couple of decades states and their legislators have become more ideologically consistent and more ideologically extreme. For the first time in modern state politics, Republican governments started passing mostly conservative agendas, and Democratic governments started passing mostly liberal agendas.
No one is quite sure why polarization and partisanship are rising at the state level, just like no one’s quite sure at the national level. But some state and local politicians started cribbing their national parties’ tactics and rhetoric. Sarah Palin, for example, ran to be a small-town mayor in 1996 before she was a governor and vice presidential nominee. When she ran for the top job in Wasilla, Alaska, the most pressing local issues were paving dirt roads and creating a police department. Yet Palin campaigned on national issues, with mailers that highlighted her anti-abortion-rights stance and ads that proclaimed she was “Endorsed by the NRA.”
But there’s one key difference between the states and D.C. At the national level, gridlock has slowed both sides. In the states, where voters and legislators are more clearly sorted, there’s often less obstruction. Money and energy have moved to the states. Legislatures are getting more lobbyists. (Mylan, the infamous EpiPen manufacturer, upped the number of states it lobbied from nine to 45 in a four-year span.) States have attracted more partisan outfits, as well. More than 1,000 state legislators have signed the state version of Grover Norquist’s “no taxes” pledge. State reps now go to the floor and read NRA talking points verbatim. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which pushes pro-business “model bills” in statehouses around the country, seems stronger than ever.
Because this activity is happening in the states, it gets less scrutiny from the media and less attention from voters. But there’s no question that our states are changing. While both sides are becoming more extreme, state Republicans are moving further to the right than state Democrats are moving to the left. According to the DW-NOMINATE-style tool, 18 state legislatures are now more conservative than Congress, some of them drastically so. The latest data suggests that 26 state legislatures were more polarized than Congress in 2013.
One of those states is Montana. Whenever you zoom in on one state its traditions, history and quirks end up scrambling some of your expectations. Montana, for instance, features something that’s increasingly rare: a divided government with a Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, and a Republican House and Senate. When Bullock pushed the state’s Medicaid expansion in 2015 he relied on the help of Republicans from rural districts to get it passed. In Montana, it turns out, rural legislators tend to be more moderate, knowing that without government aid — for their isolated hospitals, say — their districts and voters could be in real trouble.
Still, you’ll find most of the broader national trends in the Big Sky State. In recent years, Montana has lost some of its most experienced political reporters. Its legislators cozy up to the American Legislative Exchange Council; its local races have seen big infusions of outside influence and cash. Those I spoke to in Montana said the most important trend has been a war within its Republican Party. On one side are the moderates, who remain somewhat open to compromise. On the other is a newer, more conservative faction of about 35 of the 100 legislators in the House. The war has been nasty, divisive and very, very public. “I’ve covered the legislature for more than 40 years,” said Chuck Johnson, one of those former reporters. “I’ve never seen anything like this in either party.”
One of the conservative faction’s leaders has been a representative named Art Wittich. Wittich first ran for office in 2010 as one of the many Republicans swept into office in the tea party wave. While he was furious about Obamacare and the federal debt, his job as a Bozeman lawyer kept him from pursuing federal office. So Wittich ran for state office instead. Once elected, he worked to thwart Democratic compromises, to purge his party of moderates, and to hamstring the state’s government. Wittich seemed to see state issues through a national lens, something best revealed in a series of 2012 emails that leaked to the Great Falls Tribune. “We want the people watching to know there is a legitimate battle of ideas in this country and state,” he wrote in one email. “Appeasement is not the answer,” he wrote in another email, before invoking Benghazi. “Just ask Ambassador Stevens.”
Montana’s legislature meets every other year from January to April, and Wittich spent the 2015 session battling Bullock on a number of bills, including his Medicaid expansion. On that issue, a true fusion of national and local, one could understand Wittich’s opposition. But some state Republicans I spoke to said they were mystified by what happened when the state house switched to local infrastructure. It was Montana’s third attempt to help the communities hit by the oil boom — tiny towns like Fairview, with its cast iron pipes. In 2011, the state’s legislators couldn’t agree on a bill; in 2013 they did, only to see Bullock veto it in a move many saw as an act of partisan spite. But in 2015, the governor worked out a compromise bill with Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Because the compromise bill required money to be raised by selling bonds, it needed to pass each chamber with a supermajority. The bill sailed through the Senate, but Wittich and his House conservatives dug in. They described bonding as a slippery slope that would send Montana toward the moral failings of the federal government and its trillions in debt. As the session approached its end, the House held a series of votes; each time the conservatives blocked the supermajority, barely. During the Republican caucus, Wittich urged his peers to hold fast. “Frankly, from a conservative standpoint,” he said, “[preventing the bonding] may be the only thing we get in the session.”
On the final day of the session, the compromise bill went to its final vote. It fell one vote short of passing. That meant no help for Fairview until 2017, at the earliest. It also meant that infrastructure has emerged as a key issue in Bullock’s very tight bid for re-election this year. Although his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, has said he’s open to bonding, he aligns with his party’s conservative faction on most other issues. If Gianforte wins, the state’s politics seem poised to become only more ideologically extreme.
Whoever wins the governor’s race won’t have to deal with Art Wittich. Given the GOP strife, Montana’s state reps faced a few contested primaries this year, though neither faction gained a clear advantage. But one conservative who lost was Wittich. There seem to be a number of reasons for this. Wittich drew two challengers, a moderate Republican who attacked him for his infrastructure obstruction and another conservative who siphoned off some of his far-right support. A powerful group of local contractors also opposed Wittich. Finally, and most importantly, Wittich had to sit through a civil trial that concluded a few weeks before the primary. At the trial, a jury found that he had accepted nearly $20,000 in in-kind (and undisclosed) contributions from the National Right to Work Committee and its affiliates — something that was illegal under Montana’s campaign finance laws. (“It was based on the opinion of our partisan hack prosecutor,” Wittich said. “I’ll be appealing it.”)
Although it’s only one data point, it’s worth thinking about Wittich’s loss in relation to Steven Rogers’s research on voter knowledge. On the one hand, Montana voters seem to have held Wittich accountable for his political actions. And yet, on the other, even after a trial with weekly Wittich-and-corruption headlines, after a concerted effort by the contractors, after a contested three-way race, and after his own six years of deliberate statehouse stubbornness — even then Art Wittich didn’t lose in a blowout. He lost by 113 votes.
CORRECTION (Nov. 7, 11 a.m.): A source line in a previous version of a chart in this article, “State governments are getting more divided,” was incorrect. It has been changed to americanlegislatures.com.