COLUMBUS, Ohio — State by state, Republicans are moving at light speed on a conservative agenda they would have had no hope of achieving before the big election gains of November.
The dividends are apparent after only a few months in office, and they go well beyond the spending cuts forced on states by the fiscal crunch and tea party agitation. Republican governors and state legislators are bringing abortion restrictions into law from Virginia to Arizona, acting swiftly to expand gun rights north and south, pushing polling-station photo ID laws that are anathema to Democrats and taking on public sector unions anywhere they can.
All this as Democrats find themselves cowed or outmaneuvered in statehouses where they once put up a fight. In many states, they are unable to do much except hope that voters will see these actions as an overreach by the Republicans they elected — an accidental revolution to be reversed down the road.
A tug to the right was in the cards ever since voters put the GOP in charge of 25 legislatures and 29 governors’ offices in the 2010 elections. That is turning out to be every bit as key to shaping the nation’s ideological direction as anything happening in Washington.
A close-up review of the first wave of legislative action by Associated Press statehouse reporters shows the striking degree to which the GOP has been able to break through gridlock and achieve improbable ends. The historic and wildly contentious curbs on public sector bargaining in Wisconsin, quickly followed by similar action in Ohio, were but a signal that the status quo is being challenged on multiple fronts in many places.
The realignment in Florida has produced a law imposing more accountability on teachers, along with 18 proposed abortion restrictions, some bound to become law. Immigration controls are motivating lawmakers far from borders, constitutional amendments against gay marriage are picking up steam, Michigan is shortening the period people can get jobless benefits and Indiana may soon have the broadest school voucher program in the U.S.
At least 20 states are going after public-sector benefits, pay or bargaining rights.
In Virginia, Republicans used a deft legislative maneuver to enact a law that will close the state’s 21 abortion clinics. In Missouri, a presidential swing state where Republicans are at their strongest numbers in decades, a tax cut sought by business for 10 years has been given final legislative approval and Democrats are putting up little resistance to Republican priorities they once tied in knots.
“You can’t get up on every issue when you’re in the minority,” said state Sen. Tim Green, a Democrat from St. Louis. “So you pick the ones you’re most passionate about.”
In North Carolina, where Republicans won control of both legislative levers for the first time since 1870, the party has secured approval in at least one chamber for charter school expansion, limits on damages in medical malpractice suits and a bill that would create separate crimes for the death or injury of a fetus at any stage of development. Republicans have made unexpected progress in giving gun owners more rights to carry concealed pistols. North Carolina is also among nearly a dozen states where an initiative to require photo IDs at polls is getting traction. Democrats and civil libertarians worry photo ID rules would suppress minority and legal immigrant voting.
Conservatives welcome the pace and breadth of it all. “When you have one side that’s been put out in the legislative wilderness, there’s a lot of pent-up ideas that are going to move quickly,” said Dallas Woodhouse, director of Americans for Prosperity in North Carolina.
Even solidly Democratic Vermont is coming up a paler shade of blue as legislators seek cuts in spending on the elderly and disabled after shelving a plan to raise taxes on the rich. The squeeze on state budgets and the shaky economy are forcing lawmakers of both parties to rethink the usual partisan prescriptions.
“In the context of that kind of a fiscal reality, I think agendas become a little bit more polarized and opportunities for finding the kind of adjustments on the margins become less and less,” said political scientist Philip Russo of Ohio’s Miami University.
In bellwether Ohio, new Republican Gov. John Kasich burst out of the gate with a plan, now law, to hand over job creation functions from the government to a nonprofit corporation whose board he chairs. Bills that would have met quick death under Democratic control have advanced under Republican majorities — none more apparent than the law to curtail the collective bargaining rights of more than 350,000 public workers.
Democrats in Ohio are complaining about “one-party rule” and want buyer’s remorse legislation that would help voters recall lawmakers who are doing things they didn’t elect them to do. Their chances of getting it are close to zero.
So is a conservative tide sweeping the nation?
If so, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin sees it as a tide that can wash out as fast as it rushed in.
Sitting in the State Room of the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, where she had come for a historical event, Goodwin said declining party loyalty has accelerated shifts in public opinion and swings of the pendulum. She recalled the Democratic statehouse gains of 2008, the year of Barack Obama. “We thought in 2008, many pundits did, that that meant a progressive era was coming in; now everybody’s talking about a conservative era in the states and maybe in the nation,” she said.
“When one whole party comes in, and they come in having been out before, there’s that flush of victory that makes them think this is our time, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, to get through what we want to get through.”
In South Carolina, where Republicans are fashioning further restrictions to one of the country’s toughest immigration enforcement laws, Democrats have mostly dropped the delaying tactics they once used with relish. The Democratic opposition has essentially vaporized in Tennessee, Kansas and Oklahoma, too.
In Oklahoma, where the GOP controls both chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in history, Republicans are making sweeping changes to the state’s civil justice system, shoring up the state’s pension system by making workers contribute more and work longer, and aiming to eliminate bargaining rights for municipal workers in the state’s seven largest cities.
“They’re power mad,” said Democratic lawmaker Richard Morrissette of Oklahoma City. “They weren’t out there campaigning on the idea of consolidating power. They know they have control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s office, and they’re ramming this stuff through just because they can.”
If Republicans are overreaching, it’s also true that voters did not elect them to govern like Democrats.
“All this should come as no surprise to people,” said New Hampshire GOP lawmaker Gene Chandler. With supermajorities in both chambers, giving them a stronger hand against a Democratic governor, GOP legislators in the state have passed bills to shift more public employee pension costs to workers and opt for spending cuts over tax increases. They’ve also approved legislation to expand the right to use deadly force in self-defense.
It’s not all coming up tulips for the tea party or the social conservatives, however. New Mexico and Utah are among Republican-led states where governors are bypassing the GOP playbook. The tea party movement is in tatters in Colorado and not much better off in Alaska.
In Montana, Republican leaders are struggling to keep their eye on the big picture — cutting spending, developing natural resources — while the swollen GOP freshman class peppers the debate with calls to nullify federal laws, create an armed citizen’s militia, legalize spear hunting, force FBI agents to get a sheriff’s OK before arresting anyone, and more.
“Stop scaring our constituents and stop letting us look like buffoons,” veteran Republican lawmaker Walt McNutt told the aggressive newcomers.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, not one of the Democrats to roll over, came up with a cattle brand that reads “VETO” and seems itching to use it. “Ain’t nobody in the history of Montana has had so many danged ornery critters,” he said.