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Deepening statehouse divisions foretell big policy fights

By Elaine S. Povich, on

Published in News & Features

In swing states especially, blue counties got bluer and red counties got redder in the November elections, widening ideological divides as Democrats and Republicans dug in and became less likely to compromise on pressing issues in the 2021 legislative sessions, including dealing with COVID-19 and budget deficits.

The ideological divides foreshadow the rancorous redistricting process that will set political boundaries for the next decade, particularly in states where the governor is of one party and the legislature the other.

This deepening partisanship could affect a range of policy initiatives on budgets, minimum wage, marijuana laws and infrastructure funding, among others.

"In states that have a divided government, it sure stacks the deck against getting meaningful and needed policy change," said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. In North Carolina, as well as other states, he said in an interview, the increased polarization between Republicans and Democrats "makes it that much harder to govern."

The majority-Republican North Carolina legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have deadlocked for several years on the budget and other issues such as Medicaid expansion and business tax cuts.

More pressing, Greene said, North Carolina and other governmentally split states have had troubles coming up with policy to combat COVID-19. Unresolved issues surrounding Medicaid expansion will contribute to making it "notably more difficult to face COVID issues going forward," he said.


The divide has stymied federal politics for years and is becoming more prevalent at the state level.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Madison and their suburbs have grown a deeper shade of blue over the past decade and a half, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a trend particularly evident in the recent elections. By contrast, most of the rural areas of the state have trended a deeper red.

"We've been talking about polarization for a decade now, but it seems to have increased to a kind of legislative impasse," said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll, who has studied state and federal politics, "whether you are talking about the U.S. Congress, or state legislatures and governors.

"I think we have shifted to a period in American politics where accountability has been reduced ... because partisans are now so unfailingly aligned with their leaders."


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