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Three States and a Funeral (for the Republican Party)

If you want to see the next version of the GOP, look at the states where it dominates the legislatures.
May 7, 2021
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If you want to see the future of the Republican party, there’s no need to wait. It’s happening right now in state legislatures across the country.

Political sorting has created a country in which even local elections are highly polarized. In practice this means that divided government is uncommon even at the state legislative level. Forty-seven states have both branches of the legislature controlled by the same party. (The exceptions are Minnesota, Alaska, and Nebraska’s unicameral.),

Of these, Republicans overwhelmingly dominate—meaning either complete control of both branches or veto-proof legislative majorities with a Democratic governor—in 25 states, giving party leaders carte blanche to set the agenda and pass bills.

What you see in these instances is indicative of where the GOP’s priorities are. And more often than not, what you see are not public policy proposals, but grievance-based attacks on vulnerable populations or that amount to performative political theater.

Let’s look at some case-studies, in Idaho, Kansas, and Montana.

Idaho 

Idaho has always been a conservative bastion. With one brief exception in the early 1990s, Republicans have dominated Idaho’s legislature for decades. Democrats last controlled one house of the Idaho legislature in 1959 and today Republicans have super majorities in both chambers. A Democrat last occupied the governor’s office in 1995 and in the 26 years since rarely has a Republican governor needed to court votes from legislative Democrats. Currently, Idaho Democrats hold 12 seats in the 70-member House of Representatives and 7 in the 35-member Senate.

Most of the biggest fights during the current session haven’t involved Democrats at all but have featured bitter intra-party clashes between very conservative legislative Republicans and slightly less conservative Republican Governor Brad Little.

GOP lawmakers have tried, and may yet succeed, in limiting Governor Little’s emergency powers, a session-long fight that has featured public sparring over the governor’s pandemic emergency declaration last year. The COVID protocols Little instituted were relatively minor COVID-19—he imposed no statewide mask mandate, for example. But even so, Representative Heather Scott, a leader of the hardest right legislative faction, refers to him as “Governor Little Hitler.”

Education has been another flashpoint. Republican lawmakers rewrote and then defeated the governor’s budget recommendations for public schools and higher education amid accusations that it was a “social justice” curriculum, based on “critical race theory” that was “indoctrinating” the state’s children. Dangerous ideas about racism and diversity have, Representative Scott said, been “creeping through our schools forever.” Scott singled out the novel To Kill a Mockingbird as an example of this trend toward racial indoctrination.

Republicans also killed legislation that would have pumped money into Idaho’s lagging public school teacher salary structure (teachers’ unions=bad) and rejected $40 million in federal funding to test students for COVID-19.

An Idaho law prohibiting transgender individuals from changing the designation on their birth certificate and banning transgender students from high school or college sports is on hold pending a legal challenge, but Idaho has the distinction of being the first state in the nation to pass such a law. Numerous Republican dominated legislatures are now pursuing similar legislation, often using nearly identical language.

Finally, the Republicans moved on to trying to use the legislative process to prevent voters from taking power back from them in the future.

Both houses passed legislation to vastly restrict any future effort to place initiative measures on the ballot, even though the right of citizens to initiate legislation is written into the state constitution.

And at the same time, the legislature approved a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would allow lawmakers—rather than the governor—to call the legislature into special session. Voters will be asked to approve the change in 2022, but in the meantime the legislature is unlikely to formally adjourn this year. Under this scenario, and in an unprecedented break with past practice, legislative leaders will be able to return to Boise any time they wish to purse their agenda or continue to take issue with the actions of the governor—who, it bears repeating, is a member of their own party.

For his part, Governor Little has struggled to define himself and his own agenda amid the ultra-conservative criticism and he will almost certainly face a challenge from the farther right if he seeks a second term next year. That challenge might even come from his own number two.

Idaho’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, has spoken approvingly of various anti-government militia groups and appeared last fall in a video railing against COVID-19 restrictions. She recently announced her own effort to create an education task force to investigate ways “to protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism.” As if this is a thing happening in Idaho schools.

McGeachin is a textbook example of the type of political actor who frequently comes to power in an overwhelmingly one-party state. A darling of Idaho’s libertarian right, McGeachin won a five-way contested primary for lieutenant governor in 2018 with less than 29 percent of the vote. In very, very conservative state with only 1.8 million people, 51,000 Republican primary voters can empower a statewide elected official.

And in so doing, hand that official a powerful platform to define the direction of the party.

In many Idaho legislative districts the only races that matters are the contests for the Republican nomination. More than 40 percent of all Idaho legislative seats were uncontested in 2020 and some of the most outlandish ideas coming forward during the current Idaho session—penalties for local mask mandates and a “fetal heartbeat” bill, for example—have been advanced by candidates who got into office by merely winning the conservative primary sweepstakes.

The overall direction of conservatism in Idaho seems pretty well settled. It’s going to be dominated by conspiracy theories, science denial, profound disdain for public education at all levels, and a punitive social issue agenda.

Kansas

Kansas has historically had a strong contingent of moderate-conservative Republican state legislators, and it has routinely elected moderate Democratic governors. The current governor is Democrat Laura Kelly, who was elected in 2018. Simultaneously, however, Kansas stands as a solid red state, having not voted for a Democrat for president over the past 60 years and having never given Democrats control of the state senate.

But in 2020 far-right Republicans won potentially veto-proof majorities in both houses, and a steady stream of controversial legislation started moving.

In the past few days Governor Kelly has vetoed bills that:

  • Allowed everyone over 18 to carry concealed handguns, with no training required.
  • Banned transgender girls from competing in high school sports.
  • Restricted voting in substantial ways after the Republican Secretary of State declared the 2020 election clean and fair.
  • Allowed the state to sell “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates.
  • Required all Kansas high school students to pass a U.S. civics course, despite the fact that, as a matter of the state constitution, this decision is made by the State Board of Education.

This follows a series of bouts between the governor and Republican legislative leaders in which the legislators have consistently worked, often successfully, to reduce Kelly’s executive authority over COVID-related spending and mask mandates. At the same time, the legislature has resolutely refused to expand Medicaid—even with enhanced federal funding provided by the Covid relief package. It has also failed to adequately fund K-12 education for the next fiscal year, despite a court mandate.

In short, like many of its red-state cohort, the Kansas legislature has ignored real problems to address trivial, symbolic, and likely unconstitutional issues.

Montana

Montana has rarely seen one party dominate state government. That changed with a Republican sweep in 2020.

Ultra-conservative Greg Gianforte won the governor’s office, ending 16 consecutive years of Democratic governors. Gianforte made national headlines during his first successful congressional race in 2017 when he physically assaulted a reporter during an interview. As governor he has been just as aggressive in consolidating executive power and steering his agenda through the legislature where Republicans now hold two-thirds of the seats in the state house and nearly as many in the state senate.

The pace and scope of the one-party executive and legislative change left veteran Montana journalist Darrick Ehrlick agog:

For the life of me, I do not understand the Montana Legislature and the governor. On nearly the same day as Governor Greg Gianforte was signing into law a bill prohibiting sanctuary cities in Montana, of which there are none, lawmakers were leading the charge to stop law enforcement officers in the state from acting on firearm or ammunition restrictions imposed by the federal government.

Meanwhile,” Ehrlick continued, Montana’s conservative lawmakers believe they “absolutely must protect our First Amendment by establishing a state religious freedom bill, despite the freedom being enshrined in the state and federal constitutions. Apparently, freedoms to practice and live your mostly deeply held beliefs are under siege, while at the same time, these same lawmakers want to dictate how doctors treat those who are transgender or who believe abortion is acceptable and legal. Belief about God needs protection, knowledge about who you are and what policies you prefer needs outlawing.”

And then there’s the anti-democratic stuff. Republican lawmakers launched an investigation into the state’s judicial branch in the midst of the legislative session, including issuing legislative subpoenas for emails and other records held by Montana judges. This controversy is complicated, but centers on suspicions by some legislators that judges are biased against legislation pushed by conservatives. The conflict seems sure to continue beyond the current session setting up an unprecedented separation of powers showdown.

In March Gianforte signed legislation that gave him sole authority to appoint new judges. The legislation overturned a nearly 50-year-old practice of the governor selecting judicial nominees from a list of “qualified nominees derived though an independent vetting process.” Meanwhile, a sitting Montana judge appointed in 2020 by former Democratic Governor Steve Bullock was rejected recently by the state senate.

Long-time observers of Montana politics say the current session will surely end up being among the most contentious and controversial in recent history. The state’s largest newspaper, the Billings Gazette, highlighted in an editorial what has been happening in Helena. “Both the legislative and executive branches of our state government seem to feel there is absolutely no limit to their power.”

Beyond Idaho, Kansas, and Montana

These three states are not wild outliers. In Florida, the Republican majority legislature is working to overturn an overwhelmingly approved initiative on voting by felons with completed sentences. Republicans in 34 states have introduced anti-protest bills for no discernable reason except as dog whistles on Black Lives Matter. The Oklahoma and Iowa legislatures have passed bills that would absolve motorists from responsibility if they drove into protesters on a roadway—an attempt to legalize manslaughter.

While much of what these Republicans have advanced this year is mean-spirited, trivial, conspiracy-based or unconstitutional, the Republican state legislative agendas are, at least, transparent about what they seek.

Applauding his legislature’s efforts to “save our country from its own demise,” one prominent Idaho conservative activist recently wrote that he was “counting on state lawmakers to do the right thing, to once and for all send the left packing.”

The future of the Republican party isn’t a policy-based program to fix this or that problem. It’s an attack on representative democracy itself.

That’s what Republican voters want. And left to their own devices, that’s what Republican lawmakers are delivering.

Burdett A. Loomis and Marc C. Johnson

Burdett A. Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas and the editor and author of many books on American politics, including Esteemed Colleagues: Civility and Deliberation in the U.S. Senate Marc C. Johnson is a Mansfield Center fellow at the University of Montana and the author of two books on U.S. Senate history, including most recently Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party