Adding Context to GOP Gains at State Level

by Stuart Rothenberg April 10, 2015 · 9:00 AM EDT

This week’s effort to mislead, hoodwink and generally pull the wool over our eyes comes courtesy of the Republican State Leadership Committee. “Blue States Bleeding Red” was written by RSLC President Matt Walter and appeared on Sunday.

Republicans made great gains at the state and local levels in 2010 and 2014, and that certainly gives the RSLC and other party groups the right to brag about those results. But what they don’t have is the right to lead readers to faulty conclusions.

Walter’s piece argues Republicans continue to make gains at the state and local levels even after the 2014 midterm elections, and he begins by citing a GOP special election victory by Martina White in Pennsylvania’s 170th legislative district, a Philadelphia-area seat left open when Democrat Brendan Boyle was elected to Congress last fall.

“Expanding a legislative majority in a state that twice voted for Barack Obama is significant on its own,” writes Walter, an odd statement given he was not writing about a statewide race, but rather a local contest. There are plenty of Republican legislative districts in Democratic states and Democratic legislative districts in Republican states, and results in most of those contests have little to say about the states’ presidential preferences.

Walter’s comment that winning in “a district in Philadelphia, a city where Republicans have not won an open General Assembly seat in 25 years” clearly seeks to leave the mis-impression that the special election result was a remarkable upset because the territory it covers has been so inhospitable to Republicans.

In fact, Republican George T. Kenney Jr. held the seat from his election in November 1984 until 2008, when he chose not to seek re-election. Boyle won that open seat in part because of the good Democratic year.

Interestingly, when the special election was first scheduled, local GOP officials emphasized the competitive nature of the legislative district.

“This seat was recently held by Republican George Kenney and new portions of this District were part of the former 169th District formerly held by fellow Republican and Former House Speaker and current City Councilman Denny O’Brien. Republicans routinely do well in this section of the City,” Joe DeFelice, the executive director of the Philadelphia Republican Party, observed in a January PoliticsPA piece.

Just as important for White’s victory was a split in the Democratic Party over the party’s nominee. Many Democrats were unhappy their nominee was “handpicked for the special election by Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III.”

The other race that Walter crowed about in his article was in California, where, he wrote, “a little-known candidate, Andrew Do, won a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors in Southern California in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans.”

“To do so,” Walter wrote, the Republican “beat a well-known Democrat and former legislator who had previously served in the California Assembly and Senate.”

What Walter did not note — and what makes the election’s outcome a little more understandable — is the election was necessary because the previous incumbent, Republican Janet Nguyen, had given up her seat when she was elected to the state Senate.

Do, who had served on the Garden Grove City Council, had twice worked as Nguyen’s chief of staff and had her enthusiastic support. He benefited from terrific turnout among traditionally Republican Vietnamese voters.

Again, the fact a Republican held a seat in California isn’t particularly newsworthy or interesting, given the seat merely remained in GOP hands. But that didn’t stop the RSLC from bragging about Republican victories in blue states.

There are reasons for the GOP to feel good about electing White to the Pennsylvania Assembly and Do to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

White is a 26-year-old woman, while Do is Asian-American. Their victories constitute small steps for the GOP to change the face of the party, hopefully helping it to connect with demographic groups that don’t always see the Republican Party as welcoming.

But winning a local race is very different than winning a high-profile statewide or congressional contest, where party and ideology are more relevant to most voters.

The work done by both the RSLC and its rival counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, is important in party-building and candidate recruitment. But context always matters, and when the RSLC talks about victories in blue states when it is actually referring to competitive or even Republican-leaning districts in those states is nothing short of misleading.