It’s not just voting rights.
Though this year’s proliferation of bills restricting ballot access in red states has commanded national attention, it represents just one stream in a torrent of conservative legislation poised to remake the country. GOP-controlled states—including Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana—have advanced their most conservative agenda in years, and one that reflects Donald Trump’s present stamp on the Republican Party.
Across these states and others, Republican legislators and governors have operated as if they were programming a prime-time lineup at Fox News. They have focused far less on the small-government, limited-spending, and anti-tax policies that once defined the GOP than on an array of hot-button social issues, such as abortion, guns, and limits on public protest, that reflect the cultural and racial priorities of Trump’s base.
In part, this sharp right turn reflects a conscious backlash against unified Democratic control of Congress and the White House. Jessica Anderson, the executive director of Heritage Action for America, one of the country’s foremost grassroots conservative groups, told me that right-leaning voters have shifted more of their effort toward red states because they realize that they currently have no chance of advancing their causes at the national level. But the push, she added, also reflects a determination to elevate social and cultural issues that Trump stressed, after the GOP’s congressional leadership had generally downplayed them in favor of economic priorities such as cutting taxes and regulation. “You can make the argument that the work at the state level is a rebuttal or a critique of too much of the GOP leaving this stuff behind,” she said. “Trump said it matters.”
The lurch right in Republican-controlled states extends to some economic issues: Nearly two dozen states, for instance, have rejected the increased unemployment benefits that congressional Democrats approved earlier this year in President Joe Biden’s stimulus plan. But the social and racially tinged issues that Trump moved to the center of GOP messaging have dominated legislative sessions in state after state. Among the issues advancing most broadly:
- Half a dozen states, including Tennessee, Montana, Iowa, and Texas, have passed legislation allowing gun owners to carry their weapons without a permit.
- Texas, South Carolina, Idaho, and Oklahoma have passed legislation banning abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, after about six weeks of pregnancy (before women typically even know they are pregnant); Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas also passed virtually complete bans on abortion. Arizona approved an extremely restrictive bill that includes barring abortions for certain genetic conditions.
- Ten states have adopted about two dozen laws in total targeting transgender individuals, including legislation in seven states that bars transgender athletes from competing in school sports. In the U.S., “2021 has officially surpassed 2015 as the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history,” the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ-advocacy group, recently concluded. “States have now enacted more anti-LGBTQ laws this year than in the last three years combined.”
- Through mid-May, “14 states have enacted 22 new laws with provisions that make it harder for Americans to vote,” and many other laws are still pending, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “At this rate,” the organization wrote, “the United States is on track to far exceed its most recent period of intense legislative activity to restrict the vote—2011.” More red states may join this push: After a walkout by state House Democrats blocked a restrictive Texas voting law this week, Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would call a special session to pass the law later this year.
- Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, and about half a dozen other states have passed laws stiffening penalties against demonstrators who block traffic or cause property damage, and several of those states have simultaneously provided civil or criminal protection for drivers who hit protesters, according to a tally by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
- Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas have barred public schools from teaching “critical race theory,” which focuses on racism as an endemic feature of American history. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is moving to prohibit it through a ruling by the state board of education.
- Florida, Georgia, and Texas have all passed laws penalizing local governments that cut funding for their police department. One of the measures approved in Texas stipulates that a county looking to cut police funding must first win voter approval through a referendum—but would apply only to counties with a population of 1 million or more, almost all of which lean Democratic.
- Over the past year, several red-state governors have issued executive orders or signed laws barring local governments from mandating the use of face masks or limiting local businesses’ hours of operation; Florida and Tennessee have passed laws barring local governments or businesses from requiring residents to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination. Restrictive voting laws passed in Georgia and proposed in Texas explicitly outlaw measures used to increase voter turnout in the states’ largest cities (Atlanta and Houston, respectively).
This surge of polarizing legislation is being driven largely by a combination of confidence and fear. Many observers believe that Republican legislators feel emboldened after Democrats in the 2020 election failed to record the state legislative gains they expected. In 2018, as part of the recoil from Trump, Democrats made significant gains in state legislatures, winning control of six legislative chambers and netting more than 300 seats nationwide, many in the white-collar suburbs of major metro areas. But despite unprecedented investment in local races, and Biden’s win at the presidential level, the party did not flip any additional chambers last year; Republicans, on net, gained back about half as many seats as they had lost two years earlier and came out of the election with control of both legislative chambers in 30 states, compared with just 18 for Democrats (with one additional state divided and Nebraska officially nonpartisan).
Democrats’ failure at the state level in 2020 has encouraged GOP legislators to pursue a more aggressive agenda, many observers say. The dynamic is perhaps most visible in Texas. After Democrats won several suburban seats and narrowed the GOP advantage in the Texas State House in 2018, the diminished Republican majority largely muted social issues and focused on bread-and-butter concerns, such as education, during the 2019 session. The GOP’s focus shifted back toward cultural issues after Democrats failed to make the further gains both sides anticipated in November. “All the expectations in Texas just didn’t happen, so the Republican Party emerged with a kind of renewed confidence,” says James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Republicans’ confidence, Henson adds, was also “bolstered” by a practical consequence of their 2020 success at holding both of Texas’s legislative chambers: In that state, as in virtually all of the states turning right this year, Republicans will control the decennial redistricting process. The ability to draw districts that favor them next year reduces their concern about a general-election backlash against their moves even in swing suburban areas. Carisa Lopez, the political director of the Texas Freedom Network, which works to organize young people there, told me, “For progressive organizations … [Republicans] have been coming at us from all angles, and it has been exhausting. They have done almost everything they can.”
GOP legislators appear to be operating more out of fear that Trump’s base of non-college-educated, rural, and evangelical white voters will punish them in primaries if they fail to pursue maximum confrontation against Democrats and liberal constituencies, particularly on issues revolving around culture and race. “Very few of the districts are competitive [in a general election], so all they are worried about is being primaried,” says John Geer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, one of the states that have advanced the most aggressive conservative agenda this year. Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic operative in Texas, notes that the state’s militantly conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has pushed legislators toward his priorities this year in part by persuading them that any moderation risks infuriating “an aggrieved Trump base who feels that the election was stolen from them, are fired up, and love the red meat on every issue.”
In earlier generations, when governors of both parties tended to position themselves as less partisan, business-oriented problem-solvers, the GOP chief executives in these states might have restrained their legislators from veering toward the ideological fringe or even forcing votes on polarizing social issues. But today, many governors appear to feel the same pressure of a possible primary challenge—and others, most notably Florida’s DeSantis, seem to be pursuing support from the Trump base for a possible 2024 presidential bid. (As if to spotlight that intention, DeSantis signed the bill barring transgender girls from school sports on June 1, the first day of LGBTQ Pride month, and he did so at a Christian private school.)
Several other factors may be encouraging the red states’ right turn. Anderson, of Heritage Action, noted that state and local governments’ rules and restrictions during COVID-19 shutdowns prompted many conservative activists to conclude “that local and state politics probably impact their day-to-day more than even federal” policy does. Others I spoke with pointed out that conservatives are more confident that aggressive state-level social policies will withstand judicial challenges now that Republicans have solidified their 6–3 Supreme Court majority; the most restrictive abortion bills passed this year, for instance, would require the Court to roll back the nationwide right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade, as conservatives hope it will in a case involving a 15-week ban approved earlier in Mississippi. Groups such as Heritage Action and the American Legislative Exchange Council are also stepping up efforts to encourage Republican-controlled states to pursue a common conservative agenda; Heritage Action, for instance, published principles for election-law changes that Anderson has claimed helped guide the restrictive voter law passed earlier this year in Georgia.
Because it’s so decentralized, state-level policy can become a kind of blur. But in this flurry of red-state action, two patterns are clarifying. One is that even with Trump removed from the White House, his style of belligerent, culturally and racially confrontational politics is affirming its dominance in the GOP. Notably, in several states the restrictions on voting rights and social issues (particularly the bills targeting transgender people) are advancing despite public opposition from the business community that historically constituted the GOP’s base.
“There was a sense that once Trump moves out of town, the Republican Party will return to ‘normal.’ That’s turned out to be a terrible bet,” says Donald Kettl, a public-policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a longtime student of federalism and state politics. “All the forces of anger, part economic, part social, that were there to begin with are still alive, still building, and still in the process of trying to transform the Republican Party.”
The other pattern evident in the surge of conservative legislation is the continuing separation of red and blue America. As Biden and the Democrats controlling Congress are advancing an ambitious progressive agenda at the national level, almost all of the red states are responding with what amounts to a collective cry of defiance. On a lengthening list of issues, the rules that govern daily life in red and blue states are diverging—and at an accelerating pace. The chasms are deepening not only between states, but within them, as GOP legislators centered in preponderantly white rural and exurban areas more aggressively annul the policy choices of racially diverse, Democratic-controlled metro centers. Bill by bill, this year’s red-state offensive is measuring the continued unraveling of a country that appears to be unrelentingly pulling apart.