The biggest fights in the nation are increasingly being duked out in state legislatures.
On Thursday alone, abortion bans failed by a single vote in both South Carolina and Nebraska. The outcomes handed advocates for reproductive rights the latest in a growing list of victories, many of them chalked up in conservative states.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his GOP colleagues in the legislature have taken a number of measures that have become national stories in themselves.
The most infamous example is the bill passed last year that barred the teaching of sexuality or gender identity though the third grade in the Sunshine State — a bill that sparked a feud with Disney that is still intensifying more than a year later.
Disney sued DeSantis over what they termed “retaliatory” actions earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Nashville briefly became the nation’s political epicenter earlier this month, when two members of the Tennessee House were expelled because of their behavior while protesting for gun control measures.
The controversy was given an extra edge because the two lawmakers expelled, Democratic state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, are both Black.
“The world is watching Tennessee,” Jones said in a speech just before his expulsion. “What you’re really putting on trial is the state of Tennessee. What you’re really showing for the world is holding up a mirror to a state that is going back to some dark, dark roots.”
The furor even drew a hastily arranged visit from Vice President Harris. Jones and Pearson were ultimately reinstated.
There is no single cause for why states have become so central to the nation’s culture wars. It’s a product of an unusual confluence of factors.
The first and most obvious is the Supreme Court’s decision last June to strike down the constitutional right to abortion that had stood for almost half a century. The ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case gave states enormous leeway to make their own rules on abortion.
Thirteen states have banned abortion outright, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. An additional 13 states have bans that kick in somewhere between 6 weeks and 22 weeks of pregnancy.
But, on the other side of the political ledger, the liberal side won all five abortion-related ballot measures decided on the same day as last year’s midterm elections. They notched wins in deep red Montana and Kentucky as well as more left-leaning places like Vermont and California.
The attempt on Thursday by South Carolina Republicans to pass a strict abortion ban failed by one vote in a state former President Trump carried by 12 points in 2020.
South Carolina State Sen. Dick Harpootlian (D) told this column that the key difference was a handful of Republican members who, though themselves very conservative, “just said they are not going to support a bill that bans abortion.”
That position reflects fissures at the national level in the GOP, where many elected officials are adamantly anti-abortion but others, like another South Carolinian, Rep. Nancy Mace (R), have insisted the party needs to stake out “middle ground.”
Harpootlian, though relieved the abortion ban failed, noted that it’s hardly the end of the culture war issues in his state.
“We are going to have an open-carry gun bill, a Critical Race Theory bill,” he complained. “Republicans want to talk about these cultural issues, because the culture is different in Cambridge, Massachusetts from the culture in Swansea, South Carolina. They want to fight on those issues.”
Republicans would vigorously counter the implication of political chicanery, of course. They argue, first, that it is only right that states decide many of the most divisive hot-button issues for themselves.
There has also been a concerted effort in conservative circles in recent years to take major national fights to a hyper-local level.
Conservative parents have transformed school board elections, while Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon has advocated a “precinct strategy” to transform how elections are run.
But, as the abortion fights show, there is no reason to believe state-level fights necessarily favor conservatives over liberals or vice versa. Advocates of tighter gun controls, for instance, have made more progress at the state level than federally.
Just within the past week, Democratic governors in Washington State and Colorado have signed gun control measures into law, while legislation has also moved forward in the Pennsylvania state House.
Experts say that, even if many of these debates are shaped by a climate of national polarization, they also serve a useful purpose.
“The states are supposed to be laboratories of democracy because they are closer to the people,” said Todd Belt, the director of the political management program at the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University. “They are supposed to experiment a bit. The federal government is there to be the guardrail.”
Belt also suggested the current plethora of state-level fights is, in part, a normal reaction to the frequent logjams in Washington
“State governments are taking it upon themselves to move in areas where they see the federal government is not — and that could be on anything from the environment to immigration to guns.”
About the only certainty is that there are many more fights to come.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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