A rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison.
Liberals had every reason to burst with optimism as the November election results began to set in. Not only did Democrats hold on to the White House, but they also won major Senate battles. In battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin, a majority of voters chose more progressive visions for the future in both the presidential and Senate races. You might assume that this would have repercussions at the state level too—that these moderate-to-progressive states would work with the federal government in forging a more liberal set of policies. But you’d be wrong.
The GOP emerged from November 6 controlling both legislative chambers in 26 states—the same number of states it controlled after the 2010 Tea Party revolution. Most surprising: In seven states that went for Barack Obama, Republicans still hold both the governor’s office and at least one chamber, and they are showing no signs that the voters’ split decision will keep them from pushing the extreme agendas that we’ve seen since 2010.
Nationally, of course, the party has been moving rightward for a long time. But it’s only been over the past couple of years that state-level Republicans have abandoned their state-specific political cultures for hardcore conservatism. When the Tea Party gave the GOP an unprecedented number of legislative majorities in 2010, it also brought a national agenda to the state capitals. No longer were Republican legislators in Wisconsin or Ohio acting more moderate than those in Texas or South Carolina. Newly elected conservative lawmakers drew on “model legislation” concocted by pro-corporate, right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). On the most consequential of state-level debates—over budgets—the terms of negotiation were often dictated by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.
To keep the momentum going in 2012, groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee channeled enormous amounts of money into state races. Last year, the group raised more than $25 million; its Democratic counterpart raised less than $6 million. Gerrymandering also helped; capturing so many legislatures in 2010 meant the party could draw new districts designed to maximize GOP seats. Lawmakers in “safe” Republican districts, though, are only safe in general elections; they’re not immune to primary challenges from the right. So rather than representing the majority views of their constituents, even centrist Republican lawmakers often feel compelled to vote the Tea Party line to avoid being “primaried” by wealthy groups such as Norquist’s.
Regional differences used to mean that Republicans in different states had different agendas. Now, opposition to the Affordable Care Act, cuts-only approaches to budget shortfalls, anti-union “right to work” laws, and voting restrictions have become priorities for Republican lawmakers not only in deep-red states but in purple ones like Wisconsin and Ohio. In Michigan, a state that was long home to the nation’s most powerful union, the United Auto Workers, Republicans rammed through right-to-work legislation designed to cripple organized labor—just weeks after voters went for Obama by nine points. The law passed was practically identical to a model bill from ALEC. In Pennsylvania, easily carried by Obama (and even more easily won by Democratic Senator Bob Casey), Governor Tom Corbett is continuing to slash social safety-net programs. It looks like Corbett, ignoring the state’s high levels of urban and rural poverty, will join governors in South Carolina, Texas, and other deep-red states in opposing Medicaid expansion.
Perhaps most jarring was what happened in Wisconsin, home of the progressive movement and one of the nation’s consistent leaders in voter turnout. In 2011, Republican legislators passed a voter-ID law that state courts ruled unconstitutional. Now, the Republican state assembly leader has said that in addition to finding a new version of the measure that courts would approve, he would also consider a constitutional amendment to allow for the more stringent measure. Meanwhile, the senate leader, also a Republican, has called for replacing the state’s Government Accountability Board, a nonpartisan panel of retired judges that runs elections, with partisan officials who can make decisions more favorable to GOP interests. This sort of thing would be no surprise in, say, Alabama, but it’s startling in a state that Obama won by seven points and that elected liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin, making her the first openly gay U.S. senator. No matter: Republicans have both house chambers, along with Governor Scott Walker, the Tea Party favorite, so they’re going full-speed ahead.
While everyone tends to focus on Washington, it’s state legislatures that decide on many of the most controversial public policies, from voting procedures and collective-bargaining rights to abortion access and health care; the success of Obamacare will partly come down to which states choose to be willing participants in the program. Republicans understand this well; GOP strategists, funders, and policymakers have increasingly focused on state legislatures. By creating a nationwide agenda for the chambers they dominate, conservatives have effectively spread policies that otherwise would only take root in red states. That means that when progressives wake up to this reality, they’ll find that the most pressing fights against right-wing policy must be waged in the states—including those long considered moderate.