Although Donald Trump is getting all of the attention, partisan battles in state capitals around the country may do far more to shape America than the drama surrounding the first ex-president charged with a crime.
Clashes between Democrats and Republicans over issues such as abortion and guns, which could also impact future voting laws and electoral maps, presage the huge arguments that will take place in the 2024 presidential election. These simmering disputes also represent a nation split over its cultural and political identities, demonstrating how minor adjustments in the balance of power can have far-reaching implications.
In Wisconsin, one of the most competitive swing states in recent presidential elections, a liberal judge won a race for a state Supreme Court seat on Tuesday, potentially restoring abortion rights in the state and leading to the redrawing of maps designed to the GOP’s benefit. The enormity of her triumph – by about 200,000 votes – will raise red flags for the Republican Party.
Republicans in North Carolina were ecstatic this week after a Democratic state representative who was elected by a nearly 20-point margin a few months ago switched to the GOP, giving the party veto-proof majorities in both state legislative chambers as they seek new abortion restrictions and more restrictive election laws.
The country’s schism over firearms is fueling an unusual clash in Tennessee. Instead of working to prevent mass shootings in the aftermath of last week’s slaughter at a Nashville high school, Republican state senators want to expel three Democrats who participated in a gun control protest.
Meanwhile, national Democrats are looking to Chicago, where Bernie Sanders-backed progressive Brandon Johnson won the mayoral runoff on Tuesday. He defeated a moderate by making a more nuanced case than his prior support for calls to “defund the police.” (During the campaign, Johnson stated that he did not want to cut police funding.)
In addition, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has said that his state is a testing ground for a more conservative America ahead of a prospective presidential run, signed a bill into law earlier this week that allows anyone to carry concealed firearms without a permit. On Monday, the state Senate likewise enacted a severely draconian 6-week abortion ban.
This fascinating succession of local skirmishes is often overlooked in Washington, where politicians are preparing for an impending debt ceiling crisis and debating Ukraine’s help.
Yet, political brushfires that start in states can spread to the national level and shape future general election confrontations. Gender and transgender issues, for example, are already clear to be a prominent issue in 2024, as Republicans criticize Democrats for embracing “woke” legislation.
Another factor is the fervor with which debates on abortion, gender, and guns have taken place. For all of Trump’s appeal to Republican grassroots voters, his campaign is almost entirely based on his outrage at his mounting legal troubles and his allegation that he is being politically persecuted to keep him out of the White House. The battles raging in the states indicate that many people are preoccupied with other issues.
A decision that will raise eyebrows throughout the political world
When Republican Scott Walker was first elected governor in 2010, Wisconsin experienced a conservative rebirth and a subsequent liberal reaction. It was vital to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, and it continues on a political razor edge as we enter a new presidential election cycle.
In the state’s most recent political shift, liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz comfortably defeated conservative Daniel Kelly in a nonpartisan race in which both parties had clear favorites. The race drew massive outside investment, making it the most expensive state court battle in history, and Protasiewicz’s victory margin was over ten times that of Trump and Biden’s respective cushion of around 20,000 votes.
Every election is different, but the Wisconsin judge’s triumph highlights the strength of abortion as a mobilizing issue and may stoke Republican anxieties that the issue may hurt their candidates again in 2024. On Wednesday, the policy consequences of abortion’s electrifying electoral force may be seen in another Midwestern battleground. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation repealing the state’s 1931 abortion ban, which was made possible by voters giving Democrats control of both legislative houses last autumn.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which now has a liberal majority, is anticipated to repeal a pre-Civil War rule that prohibits abortion in almost all cases and was reinstated after the US Supreme Court rejected Roe v. Wade. Protasiewicz’s victory will provide optimism to Democrats who were disheartened by the loss of federal abortion rights last year.
Protasiewicz would act as a check on “conservative efforts to take away reproductive freedom, disenfranchise voters of color through racial gerrymandering, and overturn election results they don’t like,” according to Sean Eldridge, founder, and president of Stand Up America, a progressive advocacy group. Her triumph contributes to the strengthening of our democracy and the right to vote in the run-up to the 2024 elections.”
The lesson of Wisconsin’s chaotic electoral decade, though, is that local Republicans, some of whom are enslaved to Trumpism, are likely to fight back strongly. Indeed, Republicans won an open state Senate seat on Tuesday, giving them a supermajority that might be used to impeach key officials, including Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Dan Knodl, the Republican who won on Tuesday, told WISN last month that he would explore impeaching Protasiewicz. At the time, she was a circuit court judge in Milwaukee. It is unclear if the legislature has the power to remove her from the Supreme Court.
An angry spin on the gun debate
The GOP-dominated legislature in Tennessee is seeking the expulsion of three Democratic colleagues who led a rowdy protest on the state House floor following the mass death of three nine-year-olds and three adults at a Christian school in Nashville. The protest was regarded as an intolerable violation of decorum by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and the members have already been removed from committee positions. The Republican speaker described the protest as “at least similar, if not worse,” to the mob attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021.
State Rep. Justin Pearson, a Democrat, told the associated press that he supported the demonstration by gun control supporters in the public gallery because he believed their voices were not being heard as they requested action on red flag laws and other gun safety measures. Surveys suggest that a majority of Americans support stricter gun control measures, but the support varies depending on the issue in question.
Pearson told the associated press’s Jake Tapper that the trio was aware they were violating a House etiquette rule. “But we had no idea, and we didn’t think we were doing anything that could lead to our expulsion, by exercising our First Amendment rights and urging those demonstrators, children, adults, and mourning parents to do the same in the House.”
The drama in Nashville’s state house was matched this week by a stunning turn in North Carolina, where Democratic state Rep. Tricia Cotham flipped to the GOP, declaring, “The modern-day Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me.” Cotham contributed to the Republican belief that the opposition party has moved so far left on cultural and economic matters that it has abandoned the American center, even though the GOP has moved to the extremes as well. Cotham’s move has serious consequences for Democrats since it provides the GOP enough votes in both chambers to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.
Democrats accused Cotham of forsaking her constituents, and Cooper warned that her actions would have serious ramifications. “Rep. Cotham’s votes on reproductive freedom for women, election laws, LGBTQ rights, and strong public schools will define the future of the state we love,” Cooper said in a statement to the associated press.
However, the hits keep coming for Democrats in Florida, where DeSantis’ reelection last November and Republican control of the state legislature add up to absolute conservative rule. To court Republican grassroots voters ahead of a prospective presidential bid, DeSantis relaxed Florida’s already lax gun regulations this week. After signing a 15-week abortion ban into law last year, the state Senate recently enacted legislation that would prohibit most abortions in the state beyond the gestational age of roughly six weeks – or about four weeks of pregnancy.
The tough stance on abortion could help DeSantis strengthen his claim that he’d be a more effective conservative leader than Trump. Yet, this is the type of positioning that would provide Democrats with an opening if Trump were to become the GOP nominee.