Democrats across the US cheered last month, as Texas legislators staged a walkout from the statehouse to block the passage of a Republican bill that would enact a number of restrictions on voting access.
But the victory seemed short-lived, as the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, quickly announced he planned to call a special session to get the legislation passed.
The walkout and the probably only temporary relief it provides for Democrats demonstrated the immense legislative power that Republicans have in dozens of states across the country and the ability that gives them to pass a hard-right agenda on a vast range of issues from abortion to the ability to vote.
In 23 US states, Republicans hold the governorship and the legislature, giving the party near total control to advance its policies. This year, Republicans have used that power to aggressively push their conservative social agenda – taking aim at abortion access, transgender rights and gun safety, as well as voting laws.
During the Texas legislative session, which concluded late last month, Republicans approved bills to allow permitless carry of firearms, ban abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and increase criminal penalties for protesters who block intersections.
“From day one of this session, our priorities were centered around hardworking Texans and building a state that is safer, freer, healthier, and more prosperous,” Abbott said in a statement after the session concluded. “We kept those promises while also delivering one of the most conservative legislative sessions our state has ever seen.”
Texas is far from alone.
Three other states – South Carolina, Idaho and Oklahoma – recently passed similar abortion bills, and several states have also approved permitless carry this year. Although Texas Republicans failed to get their anti-trans bills passed during the regular session, 2021 marked a record year for anti-trans legislation, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
This trend of states approving increasingly extreme laws on issues like abortion and trans rights is alarming Democrats, who accuse Republicans of using their legislative power to target vulnerable communities.
“The Republicans attacked everyone in this state during this legislative session,” said Rose Clouston, the voter protection director of the Texas Democratic party. “They came after women’s health. They came after trans Texans. They came after voting rights in Black and brown communities and the disability community. They were truly attacking every single community in this state in a shameless attempt to cling to their power.”
Republican legislators’ focus on social issues marks a shift from previous decades, when the party was more concentrated on economic priorities like small government and fiscal responsibility.
There are some notable exceptions to that trend. At least 25 states, all led by Republican governors, have moved to prematurely end the supplemental unemployment benefits included in the coronavirus relief package that Joe Biden signed into law in March. However, Republican legislators seem to have focused most of their efforts this year on addressing the cultural concerns of their supporters.
“The base is more interested in culture than they are in economics right now, and that’s what the state legislatures are responding to,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative thinktank.
Olsen also noted that Republicans are not able to advance their agenda at the federal level right now, as Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. The state legislatures present more opportunities for Republican lawmakers to enact conservative policies and push back against Democrats.
“The Democratic victories at the national level made them feel threatened, so I think they’re using the power that they have to declare the values that they share,” Olsen said.
But outside of Washington, Democratic legislators in Republican-led states do not have many options in the way of preventing conservative social policies from becoming law. Despite optimistic projections, Democrats did not manage to flip any state legislative chambers in last year’s elections.
Democrats’ losses meant that they will not have much say in drawing electoral district lines as these states prepare for the decennial redistricting process. Republicans in states like Texas will thus be able to draw friendly maps that could make it easier for them to win re-election.
The Republicans attacked everyone in this state during this legislative session
Rose Clouston, Texas Democratic party
Rather than worrying about their general election races, Republican legislators seem to be more fearful of attracting primary challengers who are farther to the right on issues like gun rights.
In Texas, for example, Allen West, a former National Rifle Association board member who pushed for permitless carry in the state, has indicated he is considering launching a primary challenge against Abbott. The Republican governor is up for re-election next year.
“We know that the GOP is scared of primaries from fringe gun extremists,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of the gun control group Moms Demand Action. “We’re watching the politics play out as opposed to true policy beliefs.”
That political calculus has pushed state laws so far to the right that, in some cases, even Republicans are voicing criticism of the new policies. In Tennessee, which Donald Trump won by 23 points in November, a recent poll found that 59% of voters oppose the permitless carry bill signed into law in April.
Permitless carry laws have also faced opposition from law enforcement groups, who argue that the policy will result in more violence and more 911 calls, resulting in slower response times.
“They’re trying to score political points, and ultimately all they’re doing is undermining law enforcement and really making it harder to enforce public safety laws,” Watts said.
The business community has similarly spoken out against some of the bills making their way through Republican-led legislatures. More than 90 major US corporations signed on to a statement opposing the anti-trans bills being introduced in dozens of states.
And yet states have continued to approve anti-trans legislation, with the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, signing a bill earlier this month that will bar transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams in schools.
Republican legislators’ determination to ignore public and corporate criticism of their policies has intensified Democrats’ calls for national laws to address these issues.
On voting rights specifically, Democrats say the restrictions being approved by Republicans underscore the need to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping election reform bill that has stalled in the Senate.
“Texas Republicans have shown that they are going to use their power to disenfranchise Texans and to maintain their power,” Clouston said. “We need the federal government to set those minimum standards for what a democracy looks like in the United States of America and step in.”