In its preview of the new General Assembly session earlier this month, the Projo noted (emphasis mine):
With 22 new representatives and 7 new senators, the balance of power in the heavily Democratic General Assembly has shifted, but just slightly. The House will have 65 Democrats and 10 Republicans, and the Senate, 29 Democrats, 8 Republicans and 1 independent.
With more seats than they have had in years, the emboldened Republicans have already declared their first priority: runoff elections between the two top vote-getters the next time a candidate for a top state office gets less than 50 percent of the vote.
R.I. Republican Party Chairman Gio Cicione made a similar comment during a November appearance on WPRI 12’s “Newsmakers” when he emphasized the relatively high number of Republicans elected to the state Senate last year.
It’s true that Republicans have bounced back – a little – from the historic low they hit during the last session. In 2009-10, the G.O.P. held just 10 of the legislature’s 113 seats – or 9%. The party is now up to 18 seats – or 16% of the total.
That’s an improvement, but it’s still tied for the ninth-smallest share of General Assembly seats held by Republicans since World War II, according to data provided to me by the State Librarian Tom Evans. Here’s a chart – I used percentages because the total number of seats in the two chambers has changed over the years:
However, Republicans did do markedly better than usual in last November’s Senate elections. With eight of the chamber’s 38 seats, or 21% of the total, the G.O.P. begins this Assembly session with its largest Senate caucus since 1993-94 and its fifth-largest since 1975-76. The party’s 13% share of House seats, on the other hand, is tied for third-lowest in the postwar era:
Once again, though, everything is relative. Even when you include independent Sen. Edward O’Neill, who caucuses with the Republicans, and conservative Democrats Marc Cote and Michael Pinga, the Senate’s Republican minority still doesn’t have two-fifths of the chamber’s seats (16), the number necessary to sustain a veto.
So even in the Senate, Democrats are still comfortably in control. To quote a famous Republican, the party’s Rhode Island wing appears to be benefitting from the soft bigotry of low expectations.
I asked Common Cause Rhode Island’s John Marion about this, and he pointed me to a 1994 book called “Statehouse Democracy” by three political scientists (including Marion’s mentor at Indiana University) that looked at how the partisan balance – or lack thereof – impacts the way Rhode Island and other states are governed.
“Their conclusion is that both public opinion and party competition translate directly into the type of policies states produce,” Marion said in an e-mail. “For instance, a more liberal electorate will elect more Democrats, who will then provide more generous social welfare benefits.
“It sounds simple, but demonstrating that link quantitatively across states and over time is really hard,” he added.
While Rhode Island’s Republican lawmakers continue to be hugely outnumbered, Marion said there are some ways they can take advantage of their expanded ranks.
“While the Republicans have not reached a critical mass that can affect floor action by themselves, in conjunction with a group of conservative Democrats they may be able to block some legislation,” he said. “In addition, they can literally make their voice heard more because of their greater numbers. There are enough to put two or three on many committees now, for instance, so they can raise questions about legislation as it works its way through the process.”