Republicans hold governorships and legislative majorities in 22 states, compared to 17 for Democrats and 11 states in which government is divided. Yet, GOP-run states often do not implement policies aligned with their party as Democrat-led states often do. The following is the first in a four-part series on Republican-dominated state legislatures and how they govern.
In January, some members of the House Freedom Caucus refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy as House speaker unless he promised concessions. They won. Now, the staunchly conservative group is expanding into an area where they could make a far larger difference: Red states where laws can be passed without support from Democrats.
The State Freedom Caucus Network has rapidly taken root in 11 states, promising to make sure that states where Republicans have a mandate legislate like it. While their House counterparts have been criticized as obstructionist — failing to understand the need for compromise in a closely matched body — that criticism doesn’t apply in deep-red states, where the question becomes why are Republicans compromising with Democrats.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has attracted national attention with bold policies, but Florida is not a historically red state. DeSantis won his first election by less than one percent. As of 2021, 64% of statehouse seats in Florida were held by Republicans — ranking it 20th in terms of Republican control, barely above average.
States like Wyoming, the Dakotas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Utah dwarfed Florida in terms of actual Republican control, with 90% of seats in Wyoming occupied by Republicans. Even Ohio had more Republican control than Florida, according to 2021 data from the National Council of State Legislatures.
For years, there has been little national media coverage of state politics, so residents of red states might hear little about what’s going on in their capitals, good or bad.
But with Florida in the headlines on a weekly basis for making moves — in recent weeks Florida passed constitutional carry, a six-week abortion ban, and school choice — residents of the 19 states that are redder than Florida are increasingly wondering why they’re not hearing about similarly bold moves in their state.
That’s triggering what might be called a Ron Revolution, with lawmakers in other states seeking to follow the blueprint created by DeSantis. The Florida governor welcomes that, saying “I want them to eclipse me. We’re setting a great standard in Florida, have everyone up their game.”
The State Freedom Caucus Network in some ways has DeSantis in its DNA. As a congressman from 2013-2018, DeSantis was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus. The Network is led by Andrew Roth, a former Club for Growth executive, alongside Justin Ouimette, the House group’s former executive director.
“Since the House Freedom Caucus fought with the speaker in January, we’re trying to bring that business model down to the states. It makes sense there. What the State Freedom Caucus Network does is take these part-time lawmakers and give them staff and a full year-round operation,” Roth told The Daily Wire.
In much the same way that conservatives long ignored school boards, assuming they didn’t matter and that the ones where they live were probably in good hands – before coronavirus school shutdowns showed them that none of that was true – strategists say a similar awakening is afoot when it comes to state-level politics.
The importance of states is two-fold: First, many have Republican majorities or supermajorities allowing them to actually implement policies, instead of just arguing about them in the abstract, as is more likely to happen in Washington. Second, states are more powerful than many give them credit for, having authority under the Constitution to oversee every power not specifically granted to the federal government.
“All of the big issues occurring right now are at the state level. School choice, ESG, CRT, porn in our schools, election integrity, abortion – all of those are state issues,” Roth said.
Roth said his group has already notched numerous wins, with the Idaho Freedom Caucus killing a student-loan forgiveness program pushed by Republican Gov. Brad Little, and the Arizona Freedom Caucus helping torpedo the Democrat governor’s nominee for state health director over her stance on closing schools. Mississippi’s chapter pressured the speaker to cancel a fundraiser supporting a pro-abortion former Democrat, he said.
In Idaho, a school board “chose to open up bathrooms to boys and girls, and the state education superintendent just shrugged her shoulders.” But after Attorney General Raul Labrador, a former congressman who was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, weighed in, the school board paused their decision, he said.
One recent night, state lawmakers gathered in a Washington, D.C. townhouse to prepare for the launch of the network’s newest chapter in Louisiana.
“We’re going to stand our ground and let people know we’re standing our ground,” Beryl Amedee, a second-term Louisiana legislator, told The Daily Wire. “I believe that when the people in Louisiana see that there are people in office who do represent their actual views, I think that will affect future elections.”
The network’s staff on the ground there will be run by Connie Hair, the former chief of staff for Rep. Louie Gohmert, a member of the House Freedom Caucus who left Congress to pursue a Texas state office.
Hair expects to get much more done in Louisiana than she could in Washington. “We can’t solve this at the federal level. We need people doing it at the state level,” she told The Daily Wire.
But there is also a problem: Few residents pay attention to state-level politics, and therefore, no one holds Republican lawmakers accountable when they fail to reflect the views of their constituents. Most residents couldn’t even name their state rep – they simply assume that if they have the right party signifier behind their name, they’re worthy of re-election.
Alan Seabaugh, a Louisiana legislator since 2010, said he doesn’t want to attack his fellow Republicans, he simply wants Louisiana voters to know how they’re behaving. After one vote, “I printed the list of votes and highlighted the names of the Republicans who voted to raise taxes and put it on Facebook, and you would have thought I set off a bomb. They were calling me, ‘why would you do that to me?’ I thought, ‘why would you do that to me?’” he said.
One reason Republican states fail to successfully execute conservative policy is that being a state lawmaker is often a part-time position with little in the way of staffing. That’s where the Freedom Caucus will come in, providing outside experts to perform services like poring through lengthy bills to evaluate which ones are good and which ones may have problematic clauses tucked in.
It can also make sure that bills are drafted in a detailed manner that makes sure they won’t be easily circumvented, as has happened with some efforts to ban CRT in schools.
“When they submit a bill to be drafted, the conservatives don’t draft it very well so it doesn’t stand up very well. The lawyers have an advantage, but the guy who owns a gas station doesn’t know the finer points of the law,” Roth said.
Ensuring that Republicans have counterpoints to states like California — which is not only dominated by Democrats in the legislature, but also routinely implements far-Left policy — could offer a pressure relief valve from the tensions of modern U.S. politics, allowing people to choose to move to places that will predictably be governed in a way that aligns with their values.
“The idea of a national divorce is dumb, but we should have bold red states where people can move to,” Thomas Bradbury, director of advocacy and policy at the American Conservative Union, told The Daily Wire.
And in an era where few are still persuadable by political rhetoric, the way a party governs when they have control of a state is important because it’s a chance for voters to see whether those policies work with their own eyes.
Residents in purple states can look at the real-world outcomes in states that are governed with bold conservative visions versus bold liberal visions, and see which one worked out better. If states are the laboratories of democracy, that amounts to evaluating the outcome of the experiment.
That’s an experiment that worked out well for conservatives in places like Florida’s Miami-Dade County, a Democrat stronghold that voted for DeSantis last year. Prior to his election, they might have believed ads that portrayed DeSantis in overblown terms. But after four years of enacting policies, they could judge him on outcomes, not rhetoric.
“If you lead boldly, you can convince people that the policies have made their lives better,” Bradbury said.