State G.O.P. Leaders Move Swiftly as Party Bickers in Congress

The New York Times | By ALEXANDER BURNS and MITCH SMITH FEB. 11, 2017


At the Kentucky Capitol in January, union leaders addressed those protesting a Senate-approved bill making it illegal for workers to be required to join a union or pay dues to keep a job. Credit Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press When Republicans in Kentucky seized total control of the state government last year, Damon Thayer, the majority leader in the State Senate, began asking around for advice from counterparts in other capitals where the party already dominated both the legislative and executive branches.

How should we handle all this power? he wanted to know.

One answer impressed him, Mr. Thayer said, from a senior Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin: “Move quickly.”

Kentucky Republicans have done just that, swiftly passing laws to roll back the powers of labor unions and restrict access to abortion. But they are only getting started, Mr. Thayer said in an interview: They also plan to make sweeping changes to the education and public pension systems this year.

And they have plenty of company.

While Republicans in Washington appear flummoxed by the complexities of one-party rule, struggling with issues from repealing the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, to paying for President Trump’s promised wall on the Mexican border, rising party leaders in the states seem far more at ease and assertive. Republicans have top-to-bottom control in 25 states now, holding both the governorship and the entire legislature, and Republican lawmakers are acting with lightning speed to enact longstanding conservative priorities.

In states from New England to the Midwest and across the South, conservative lawmakers have introduced or enacted legislation to erode union powers and abortion rights, loosen gun regulations, expand school-choice programs and slash taxes and spending.

State Senator Scott L. Fitzgerald of Wisconsin, the Republican majority leader, said conservatives in the states had taken the party’s national victories in November as a directive to “shake up” government.

“That has been amped up as a result of Donald Trump being elected president,” he said. “There’s a higher expectation now.”

If Republicans in the states have taken Mr. Trump as an inspiration, in some respects they are also largely unburdened by his personality and his political whims. Republicans in Congress are plainly struggling to overcome deep internal disagreements and to balance traditional conservative goals with Mr. Trump’s distinctive priorities. But for Republicans in state capitals, these are comparatively remote considerations.

Some Democrats fear that while their own party is consumed nationally with fighting Mr. Trump, leaders and activists may be too distracted to throw up effective roadblocks to the ideological agenda that Republicans are ramming through at the state level.

“Progressives cannot afford to forget about what’s happening in our backyards,” said Nick Rathod, executive director of State Innovation Exchange, a Colorado-based liberal group focused on state legislatures. “Some of it is even more egregious than what is currently happening in Washington, D.C.”

Republicans have gained power rapidly in the states since the 2008 presidential election, winning 33 governorships and in many instances entrenching themselves in power through legislative redistricting.

Riding to office on a wave of discontent with the Obama administration, headstrong governors in states like Wisconsin and Ohio embarked on a ferocious quest to transform their states, repeatedly battling powerful unions and popular backlash. Sidelining Democratic lawmakers and grinding down liberal interest groups, these Republicans may have helped pave the way for Mr. Trump’s victories in a string of traditionally blue Midwestern states last year.


In Iowa, Republican leaders announced this past week that they would pursue sweeping changes to the collective bargaining rights of public employees. State Senator Bill Dix, the new Republican majority leader, said his party had campaigned on such changes — which would cut deeply into unions’ negotiating power — and intended to make good on its commitments. He said Republicans would also seek to change state laws governing health care and to enshrine in the State Constitution the right to bear arms.

“Iowans expect us to take action,” Mr. Dix said.

His counterpart in New Hampshire, Mr. Bradley, a former member of Congress, echoed that language, but cautioned in an interview that Republicans had to move deliberately and not just fast.

“We can’t just start bonfires that we can’t put out,” he warned. “But we can certainly move forward with a conservative agenda that’s a reasonable conservative agenda.”

Democrats and labor unions, which in the past have been able to thwart conservative legislation with the help of a supportive governor or a bloc of allies in the legislature, describe the onslaught in newly Republican states as overwhelming.

“They’re killing us here in the state of Missouri,” said John Stiffler, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council.

Some unions in the state, shut out of power, are attempting to put the so-called right-to-work law up for a direct vote in a 2018 referendum. For the moment, Mr. Stiffler said, union leaders are seeking to meet with Mr. Greitens in the hope of finding a compromise on other policies, like prevailing-wage legislation.


“We’re trying to find a way to get even a small audience with him,” Mr. Stiffler said of Mr. Greitens.

The Republican agenda in the states goes well beyond limiting unions. Party leaders in Kentucky, New Hampshire and Missouri have signaled that they plan to expand school-choice and charter school programs and, in some instances, to pursue tort reform and to place new regulations on voting.

Beleaguered Democrats see each policy as devised to undercut one of their core political constituencies: teachers, trial lawyers, minority voters or young people.

In several states that the party has controlled for a longer span, Republican governors have also announced aggressive plans to overhaul the size and functions of government, including a Wisconsin welfare-overhaul proposal, backed by Gov. Scott Walker, and a large program of tax cuts in Florida, championed by Gov. Rick Scott. Both men were first elected in 2010.