The post-election narrative has focused primarily on the federal elections and how the Republicans failed to retake the White House and lost seats in both the House and the Senate. To be sure, the federal elections were critical to the continued recognition of and support for basic civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. Under a Romney-Ryan administration, at best, any efforts to achieve full equality under the law would have stalled, and at worst, gains made in the last four years would have been reversed. At the federal level, we dodged a bullet -- at least until the next election
But the media have largely ignored the Republican gains on the state level. And these gains can't be overstated. Republicans are the dominant party in the states. According to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national organization whose mission is to elect down-ballot, state-level Republican office holders, the Republican Party holds a majority of state legislatures, governorships, lieutenant governorships and secretaries of state and claims half the nation's attorneys general. After the November elections the Republican Party now controls 24 state legislatures, and Republican governors lead 29 states. This one party's dominance is significant on multiple levels.
The vast majority of laws that regulate our primary relationships and economic well-being are created and enforced at the state level. Forty states have laws or constitutional amendments (and in some cases both) that prohibit marriage between two people of the same sex. Many states continue to refuse to allow same-sex couples to adopt. And a majority of states fail to prohibit private employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
In the next decade the battle for equality will largely be fought in the state legislatures. But one need only look at the 2012 national and state Republican platforms to understand that these laws are unlikely to change in states dominated by the Republican Party. The national GOP platform and nearly every state GOP platform define marriage as between one man and one woman. Similarly, the national and several state platforms explicitly reject adoption by same-sex couples. And you can forget about any support for employment discrimination laws. Oklahoma's platform even states that "those promoting homosexuality or other aberrant lifestyles should not be allowed to hold responsible positions over children, which are not their own, or other vulnerable persons." Texas felt it necessary to dedicate an entire section of its platform to denouncing "homosexuality."
The Republican control extends to the state judicial branches, as well. In theory the judicial branch acts as a check on legislative and executive overreach. Marriage equality became a reality only after the Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut state courts declared that their state constitutions prohibited discrimination against same-sex couples. Yet 39 states elect the judiciary, and the GOP has focused its efforts to influence the makeup of the state courts, as well. At a GOP rally in North Carolina, the reelection of State Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby was touted as critical to upholding the Republican-dominated state legislature's recent legislative successes. In Florida Republican state party officials pushed for the ouster of three Florida Supreme Court justices, a campaign funded by the Koch brothers. These efforts are, of course, reminiscent of the successful 2010 campaign in Iowa to unseat three Supreme Court justices who held that the state constitution required marriage equality.
Eventually, the gains at the state level will influence the federal elections. State leadership positions are the training ground for national positions. Of the last five presidents, only George H. W. Bush did not hold state office before ascending to the presidency. Indeed, the RSLC promotes the fact that it is building a "farm team" of America's future leaders. Perhaps even more important (but less understood) to the national landscape is that states control congressional redistricting plans. Karl Rove, in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal before the 2010 elections, explained his party's focus on the state elections:
To understand the broader political implications, consider that the GOP gained somewhere between 25 and 30 seats because of the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. Without those seats, Republicans would not have won the House in 1994 ... [In the 2010 elections] Republican strategists are focused on 107 seats in 16 states. Winning these seats would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats.
And the strategy worked in several states. According to political analysts, Republicans picked up at least three North Carolina congressional seats, as well as seats in Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania, based on redistricting.
We should certainly celebrate the federal election results. We no longer need to worry that a Romney-Ryan administration would undo the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" through Department of Defense policy, lift the executive order that is giving hope to binational same-sex couples, reinstate the vigorous enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), seek a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman or appoint a new justice to the U.S. Supreme Court just as important civil rights cases are reaching the Court. We no longer need to worry that a "President Romney" would refuse to sign significant legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identify, or the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill repealing DOMA.
But we should pay attention to what is happening at the state level, too. Our state leaders and state courts can dramatically affect the day-to-day lives of gay Americans. They will decide who can marry, who can adopt, what can be taught in schools, who will be protected against discrimination and who will receive the benefits and protections of state laws. Even more than the president of the United States, they can stall, block and reverse efforts to achieve full equality. They are also tomorrow's national leaders. Unless the Republican platform changes dramatically in the next four years, we may not be able to dodge another bullet in 2016.