There are 99 legislators in the Tennessee House of Representatives, the body that voted on Thursday to expel two of its Democratic members for leading an anti-gun protest in the chamber.
Sixty of them had no opponent in last November’s election.
Of the remaining House races, almost none were competitive. Not a single seat flipped from one party to the other.
“We’re just not in a normal political system,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor and expert on state politics at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “In a normal two-party system, if one party goes too far, usually the other party stops them. They put the brakes on.”
In Tennessee, he said, “there’s nobody to put on the brakes.”
And not just in Tennessee.
Nationwide, candidates for roughly four of every 10 state legislative seats run unopposed in general elections.
And across the country, one-party control of state legislatures, compounded by hyperpartisan politics, widespread gerrymandering, an urban-rural divide and uncompetitive races, has made the dysfunction in Tennessee more the rule than the exception.
The lack of competition means incumbent lawmakers face few consequences for their conduct. And their legislative actions are driven in large part by the fraction of partisans who determine their fates in primary elections, the only political contests where they face serious opposition.
Those forces, intensified by the Supreme Court’s open door for gerrymandering and the geographic sorting of Democrats into urban areas and Republicans into rural ones, are buffeting legislatures run by both parties: Republicans have total control of legislatures in 28 states (including Nebraska, which is nominally nonpartisan) and Democrats in 18.
That control has enabled both parties to enact legislation advancing their policy agendas, as would be expected, especially at such a partisan moment. Both parties, to differing degrees, have abused their ability to gerrymander.
But it is Republican-run states, many experts say, that are taking extreme positions on limiting voting and bending or breaking other democratic norms, as Tennessee did in expelling two lawmakers last week. [Continue reading…]