Consider the state legislative landscape after this month’s midterm elections: Republicans successfully kept or took control of 30 state legislatures; in 24 states, Republicans control both legislative branches and the governorship. At the same time, Democrats lost ground, now maintaining unilateral control in just six states, down from 11 before the midterms.
It’s an unprecedented sweep for the GOP at the state level, and in a year that saw nearly across-the-board Republican wins, it’s a breathtaking expansion of largely unchecked lawmaking power.
There’s a story here about gerrymandering, and the successful tactics employed by right-wing activists to build a robust candidate farm team and push primary turnout. But what it means is this: As the country continues to tilt leftward, the laws that most directly impact Americans’ lives will be passed by legislators from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
If you want to know what’s on deck for GOP-controlled states, look no further than Michigan, a reliably blue state in presidential elections with a Republican governor and legislature. Two years ago, lawmakers in this staunch pro-labor stronghold passed anti-union right-to-work laws. They also passed a slew of legislation (PDF) limiting women’s reproductive rights.
Oh, and about that “blue state” thing? Last week, a Republican state lawmaker introduced a bill that would change the way the state awards its 16 electoral votes. Instead of winner-take-all, an arrangement that clearly benefits Democrats in states like Michigan, the winner of the state’s popular vote would get half of Michigan’s electoral votes, with an additional electoral vote awarded for every 1.5 percent of the vote received above 50 percent. The second-place major party candidate would get the remainder.
Even if this doesn’t fly in Michigan—there’s the potential for some deal making, because legislative Republicans need Dem backing on a roads bill—expect to see similar bills introduced in populous states with high electoral vote counts and GOP-controlled legislatures. This is a new spin on a GOP scheme to create a more favorable Republican playing field for the 2016 presidential election. And if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere—and will.
In New Mexico and Kentucky, right-to-work is on the agenda, with lawmakers empowered by decisive midterm results introducing such bills during legislative lame-duck sessions. It’s the same playbook followed by elected officials in Wisconsin and Michigan, where right-to-work is now law.
It’s worth noting that in Michigan, right-to-work bills mirrored model legislation drafted by American Legislative Exchange Council, a group funded by billionaire Tea Party magnates David and Charles Koch, almost word for word. Another Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity, hailed Michigan’s 2012 adoption of right-to-work laws as “the shot heard round the world” in the fight against unions.
Speaking of ALEC: In the wake of a constitutional amendment undermining abortion rights in Tennessee, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would require women to view not just a fetal ultrasound 24 to 72 before receiving an abortion, but listen to a fetal heartbeat.
Such laws are called “targeted regulation of abortion providers,” and are often aimed at closing abortion clinics by creating legal requirements the facilities can’t afford to comply with. As it happens, ALEC has drafted some model TRAP legislation (PDF), and these kinds of bills are perennial favorites with GOP lawmakers.
As more Americans voice support of same-sex marriage (and as most appellate courts rule against same-sex marriage bans), expect to see a wave of state laws mimicking the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA, which applies to the federal government but not state governments, was intended to protect Native American tribes that used peyote during religious rites. State RFRAs would allow businesses owners to legally discriminate against same-sex couples.
Keep in mind that this is just the first round of legislation the newly empowered Republicans are planning to unleash. I like to end columns with a potential policy fix, some kind of suggested action, or at least a stern finger-wagging. Government shouldn’t be a spectator sport.
This time, I’ve got nothing. The GOP lawmakers who plan to enact these socially regressive agendas are already in office, frequently to the chagrin of their more moderate Republican colleagues. The (in many cases gerrymandered) districts that assured those lawmakers’ victories are still in place, and if state legislatures remain GOP-controlled, redistricting after the 2020 U.S. Census isn’t likely to change that.
To be clear, unilateral Democratic control is just as problematic as the reverse. Our system of checks and balances works best when there’s push-pull, when lawmakers have to make deals to get stuff done. Discussion and compromise work in constituents’ favor. But this utopian ideal of shared governance isn’t, as far as I can tell, anywhere in sight.