The Republican Party now has total control of our national legislature and executive and is newly empowered with control of Minnesota’s state Legislature. That brings with it a series of risks and problems. Let’s consider then in turn.
First, there’s the challenge of “issue ownership.” That involves responsibility for the outcome of public problems during a party’s time of dominance in government. Obamacare, for example, became an issue owned by national Democrats that cost them dearly in the 2010, 2014 and 2016 elections. In Minnesota, 2012 constitutional referendums on same-sex marriage and voter-identification rules produced electoral reversals for the Republican Party.
Health care promises to be an issue that the national and state GOP will “own” in coming years. The Republican Congress is in the process of “repealing and replacing” Obama’s 2010 signature law, the Affordable Care Act. The risks for the GOP involves possible withdrawal of health care coverage for the approximately 20 million people who received coverage under the ACA, along with the challenges of containing the growing cost of the law for the federal government. Expect Democrats to highlight shortcomings of any GOP actions on this issue, just as Republicans did in previous years.
Minnesota Republicans face comparable problems with attempt to reform MNsure, the state health exchange established under the national ACA. Conflicts with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and partisan recriminations are certain to ensue, placing the party on the defensive because of its increased ownership of this issue.
A second challenge for the national and state GOP is to pick fights carefully, because not all potential conflicts are winners. This is a lesson already lost on President Donald Trump, who cannot pass up tweet fights on whatever controversy arises daily. His administration’s sloppy drafting of an executive order restricting immigration is a prime example of such an unforced error. When taking on such a charged issue, one must do it competently and carefully.
A third concern for the GOP is that a political party is defined by its leaders. Nationally, Trump’s unpopularity and constant quarrels with the media have made him the least popular new president in polling history. This promises to be an ongoing problem for the electoral prospects and potential policy accomplishments of the national party.
State Rep. Kurt Daudt and state Sen. Paul Gazelka are the two leaders of the Minnesota GOP in the state Legislature. Daudt has been alternatively winsome and acrimonious in his public dealings with Dayton. Gazelka, new to his leadership post, has demonstrated a consistently low-key and conciliatory presence. Their behavior in the coming months will do much to shape the public image of their state party as the legislative session progresses.
A fourth challenge for the state and national GOP is that their proposed solutions had better work well in practice. National Republicans have developed alternative approaches to a wide variety of domestic policies, touting more market-oriented reforms in health care, education and financial regulation. Many of these reforms will pass into law soon thanks to Trump and the GOP Congress, and the policy results will shape both of their fates. The state GOP will attempt comparable reforms, and the voters will judge them by the results.
A final problem for the Republicans is that in both state and national politics, no one party has stayed on top for long in recent years. Consider the zigzag of partisan control of the national government. No party has held the presidential office for more than eight years in a row since 1992. Partisan control of Congress has varied regularly since Democrats lost their long-standing House and Senate majorities in the 1994 elections.
Both national parties are unpopular with voters, with neither receiving 50 percent support in opinion polls. Trump’s unpopularity at present is a further electoral threat to the GOP majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Similar partisan shifts have occurred in Minnesota in recent years. Recent governors have been Independents, Republicans and Democrats. A Democratic state Legislature gave way to GOP control in 2010. 2012 saw the Democrats regain control, followed by a GOP House and Democratic Senate from 2015 to 2017, and now GOP control again of both chambers.
So partisans should not get their hopes up. National and Minnesota voters seem disinclined to name either major party as a permanent governing party or even a usually dominant majority party.
Here’s how the challenges listed above interact. As they govern, parties are defined by their leaders, who have a large say in picking their fights and establishing ownership over issues.
Gradually, the public assesses the results of this activity, drawing conclusions about whether a party’s solution have worked well. The recent result has been enough public dissatisfaction with leaders and results to produce a regular shift in party control in national and Minnesota government.
So here’s simple way to judge party success: The longer a party can govern without suffering electoral reversals, the more enduring its historic accomplishments. Such accomplishments have been hard to come by in national and Minnesota government in recent decades.
Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.