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How Red States Got Their Groove Back

After years of relative quiet, Republican lawmakers have successfully pushed abortion bans, voting restrictions, tax cuts, religious freedom and school choice.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has criticized the Biden administration's door-to-door outreach plan to get communities vaccinated. Republican governors and legislatures are increasingly active, pushing ambitious programs that reflect conservative values.
(Sean Rayford/TNS)
If and when the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, abortion will be illegal in Texas. On Tuesday, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill banning the procedure as soon the court allows, joining 10 other states with such trigger laws already on the books.

“The most precious freedom of all is life itself,” Abbott said. “Texas will always foster a culture of life.”

Abbott’s action came just two months after he signed another bill that banned abortions as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, while allowing individuals to sue abortion providers. The abortion bans were among numerous conservative priorities that Abbott signed into law this year, including a ban on teaching lessons about systemic racism in law and history; laws making it more difficult for counties and large cities to cut their public safety budgets; a new law allowing people to carry guns without a license; laws that prohibit government agencies from shutting down places of worship during emergencies; and new criminal penalties for certain forms of protest.

If the Republicans who rule Texas have had a busy year, they were not alone. Around the country, Republican-controlled states have pursued unusually ambitious programs this year. They have slashed taxes, created new private school choice programs and engaged in culture war fights over issues such as transgender athletes.

Unlike Texas, 18 states have succeeded in imposing new restrictions on voting, in response to largely illusory complaints about voter fraud last fall. (The Texas bill has been held up by Democratic legislators fleeing the state and, however inadvertently, spreading COVID-19 to federal officials.)

Some of the newfound energy in red states is part of the response to the GOP losing power in Washington. It’s natural for the GOP’s focus to shift from Washington, where it can only play defense, out to the states, where the party controls a majority of legislatures and governorships.

“There is a relationship where a new president from the opposite party stimulates more action from state governments that are controlled by the opposing party,” says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “We saw that with the Democrats under Trump, and that may be true now.”

Some Republicans are clearly thumbing their nose at President Biden. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster sought to block the administration from sending people door-to-door to promote vaccinations, while Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has cracked down on vaccine outreach efforts targeted at children. Abbott and other GOP governors have sent members of the National Guard to the Mexican border essentially to protest what they see as lax immigration enforcement from the administration.

But more than antipathy toward Biden is at play. The pandemic opened up a policy void last year, with many legislatures meeting in truncated sessions and largely concentrating on emergency response and non-controversial bills. Now legislators are eager to act. “You’re seeing a lot of pent-up demand for free-market legislation,” says Jonathan Williams, executive vice president of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization that crafts model legislation. “It’s been a couple of years since states have been able to sink their teeth into robust policy discussions.”

Legislators who were largely on hiatus last year have reawakened, Rip Van Winkle-like, to a changed set of circumstances. The combination of a quick economic rebound and federal largesse has left most state treasuries overflowing, allowing Republicans to cut taxes and leaving them free to concentrate more on social issues.

“Increasingly, we’re a country that at the federal level is governed by big cities and coastal elites who are intent on forcing their worldview and values on a resistant heartland,” says Gary Bauer, president of American Values, a conservative advocacy group. “It is sparking and inspiring a heartland reaction, basically saying we will govern ourselves, thank you very much.”

Longtime GOP Dominance

During the first midterm election of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2010, Republicans won 20 legislative chambers, 675 legislative seats and a net gain of six governorships. They built on those victories during Obama’s second midterm in 2014, leaving the party in control of two-thirds of all legislative chambers – the party’s greatest strength at the state level in decades.

Lawmakers could do what they wanted in red states in those days, and they did – imposing abortion restrictions, creating voter identification requirements, cutting taxes and passing right-to-work laws and other anti-union legislation. They blocked same-sex marriage, prior to the 2015 Supreme Court decision enshrining such rights, and most red states resisted the Medicaid expansion called for under Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Their momentum seemed to stall out around the time Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, however. Policy energy shifted to Washington. Democrats began to climb back from their low point in legislatures. Beyond that, state-level Republicans ran into serious resistance to some of their own ideas.

Several Republican governors sought not only to cut taxes but eliminate state income taxes altogether. That effort seemed to run aground around 2017, when the Kansas legislature – controlled by Republicans – rolled back most of the tax cuts pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback in a failed “experiment” that left schools and state services badly underfunded.

In 2018, teachers in West Virginia kicked off the “red for ed” protest movement, successfully pressuring legislators to abandon plans for private school choice and winning a raise for themselves in the process. Red for ed spread to other conservative states such as Arizona and Oklahoma, similarly prompting salary hikes.

Grossmann published a book in 2019 called Red State Blues, arguing that despite the GOP’s electoral success and its culture-war victories, the party had been unable to slow the growth of government due to voter demand for education and other services. “Cuts to government services are not popular,” he concluded.

Biden Had No Coattails

Despite Democratic success in federal elections last year, Republicans maintained control of majorities of both legislatures and governorships. Not many legislative seats flipped, but the GOP increased its majorities in many states, even as Democrats did the same in blue states. Despite a well-funded effort, Democrats failed to flip a single legislative chamber last fall, while Republicans took over both chambers in New Hampshire.

Trump got nowhere with his numerous lawsuits challenging election results, but his “big lie” about the election being rigged has had real resonance within the party, despite lack of evidence of widespread fraud. “Voter integrity is the Number One issue with Republican activists by far,” says Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, a conservative advocacy group.

If GOP voters are fired up because a majority of them believe the election was stolen, Republican lawmakers are borrowing from Trump’s own playbook to find hot-button issues to keep the base enraged and engaged.

On Tuesday, a federal judge blocked a new law in Arkansas banning nearly all abortions, finding it “categorically unconstitutional.” But anti-abortion lawmakers, convinced they will find a favorable majority at the Supreme Court, have passed numerous restrictions and outright bans this year.

“We see the legislative energy being funneled into issues that are more about ginning up the base,” says Elizabeth Nash, who directs state issues at the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.

Republican legislators continue to push back against federal guidance regarding the pandemic, with nine states blocking local school districts from imposing mask mandates. In the wake of last year’s racial justice programs, they have criminalized some forms of protests, while blocking teaching of how slavery and racial terror in the nation’s past continues to affect present realities. Critics of such bans note that this is not only ahistorical, but that the form of critical race theory being targeted is taught in law school, not elementary school.

Eight states this year have banned transgender athletes from competing in school sports that match their gender identity. A ban failed in Louisiana on Wednesday when the legislature upheld Democratic Gov. John Edwards’ veto. That same day, a federal judge blocked West Virginia’s new ban.

Legislators in several states have acknowledged lack of knowledge of any transgender girls trying to compete in girls’ sports in their own states. Bauer concedes that there aren’t many examples of transgender girls competing in women’s sports, but notes that a decade ago no one would have imagined such a thing as a possibility, so states are right to take “precautionary” measures.

“If I were a state legislator and this happened in my state, I would not want people banging on my office doors and flooding me with phone calls saying, ‘You should have known this was going to happen, why didn’t you do anything about it,’” Bauer says.

Arguing Over Substance

Republicans aren’t just arguing about culturally-sensitive issues. They’re also laying down markers about their desire to limit government spending.

Last fall, Arizona voters approved a surcharge of 3.5 percent on incomes over $250,000 to fund education. Last month, lawmakers effectively rolled that back, phasing in a two-tier flat tax that will restore the top income tax rate of 4.5 percent as part of a $1.9 billion tax cut.

Ten other states have cut their income tax rates this year – including Wisconsin, where Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed a budget produced by the GOP-controlled legislature that included more than $2 billion worth of tax cuts. Jim Justice and Tate Reeves, the Republican governors of West Virginia and Mississippi respectively, both proposed eliminating individual income taxes. They didn’t succeed, but each won approval in one legislative chamber.

The hunger to cut taxes is clearly back.

“A lot of the states are saying that if President Biden and Congress do hatch these plans to tax more and spend more at the federal level, we need to offset with tax cuts at the state level,” says Williams, the ALEC vice president.

In a tight labor market, most Republican governors have ended the enhanced unemployment benefits approved by Congress. And this has arguably been the most successful year ever for advocates of school choice, with 18 states either creating or expanding education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships or other methods of allowing public dollars to follow students to private schools. “It has been a breakthrough year,” says Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, which promotes school choice. “The pandemic made parents aware of what’s happening in schools and they wanted something different. They wanted options.”

None of this is to suggest that conservatives are getting their way everywhere. In blue states, Democrats have countered the GOP’s voting restrictions with even more new laws to make voting and registration easier, while also pushing new restrictions and oversight on policing, promoting green-energy policies and moving to enshrine abortion rights in case the Supreme Court does rule against Roe.

Grossmann continues to be skeptical that Republicans will be able to stem the tide of government growth, or push back meaningfully against a culture being changed both by demographics and evolving attitudes. “They’re banning things that are mostly not occurring,” he says. “They are reacting to a rising cultural liberalism, but what they’re proposing to do will not stop that rising cultural liberalism.”

After years of relative quiet, Republican lawmakers this year have made it clear that they will not stand idly by while the culture shifts and Democrats pursue expansive plans in Washington. They may not win every battle, but in the states they control – which is a majority of states – they will pursue a conservative agenda relentlessly.

They’re looking both to satisfy and fire up a base heading into midterm elections that – if history is any guide – should lift Republicans to a greater level of power than they currently enjoy.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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