Could Social Conservatives Hijack the States?

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 11:47 AM EST

The Republican Party seems intent on doing all it can to ensure gridlock in the next Congress, with little expectation for major Democratic legislation to pass the Republican-controlled House. But increasingly, it looks like the GOP may be able to inflict the most damage on the Democratic agenda outside of Washington. The GOP made major 2010 gains in the state legislatures, some of which may move swiftly to enact significant fiscal and social reforms while partisan warfare overtakes Capitol Hill.

Before the midterms, 27 state legislatures were under Democratic control, while 14 were under GOP control, and eight states were split. Now, the Washington Post notes, the GOP has control over more state legislatures than the party has since 1952: "Republicans control 26 state legislatures, Democrats 17, and five have split control… It is the first time since the 1800s that Republicans will control the full legislatures in Alabama and North Carolina. Republicans will lead the Minnesota Senate for the first time ever."

In others, GOP state legislators may have simply benefitted from the down-ballot effect of being on the ticket with the national GOP. Either way, states with total Republican control now have far greater leeway to set and enact their agenda, particularly as compared to their Washington counterparts. The Post explains how the shift could empower GOP-controlled states to act on issues that stayed off the radar during the elections:

Social issues barely rated in this year's economy-centric midterm elections…But major GOP gains in state legislatures across the country - where policy on social issues is often set - left cultural conservatives newly empowered. Opponents of same-sex marriage, for instance, now see an opportunity to block or even reverse recent gains by gay rights advocates … [the National Organization for Marriage] The group focused particularly on Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Iowa, four states grappling with the same-sex marriage issue.

Anti-choice advocates and legislatures have also vowed to make inroads on abortion through state-level programs and the new federal health law. In Wisconsin, the entire state flipped from blue to red: the governor's office and the state legislature, as well as one Senate seat. Wisconsin's GOP Governor-elect has now vowed to "oppose the state's expansion earlier this year of a program that provides free birth control to low-income people and youth as young as 15." Elsewhere, abortion advocates are pushing for states with newly empowered Republicans to bar private insurance companies from covering abortions as part of their health plan, following the lead of five other GOP-controlled states. In some states, groups like the National Organization for Marriage gave millions to GOP state candidates to help put them into office.

Socially liberal advocates—along with some state Republicans themselves—deny that GOP-controlled states will be eager to act on such social issues, given the prevailing concerns about jobs and the economy. Groups like pro-Republican, pro-gay GOProud, along with some tea party activists, have urged the national GOP to keep social issues off the agenda. But even so, there are many areas where fiscal and social issues intersect, and social conservatives may have an opportunity to put their imprimatur on the state level, at least. The fiscal crises that continue to grip state budgets have pushed conservative state legislatures across the country to put a huge host of programs on the chopping block, and funding for hot-button items like free contraceptives could be the first to go.