COLUMBUS, Ohio | State by state, Republicans are moving at light speed on a conservative agenda they would have had no hope of achieving before the big election gains of last November.
The dividends are apparent after only a few months in office, and they go well beyond the spending cuts forced on states by the fiscal crunch and tea party agitation. Republican governors and state legislators are bringing abortion restrictions into law from Virginia to Arizona, acting swiftly to expand gun rights north and south, pushing polling-station photo-ID laws that are anathema to Democrats and taking on public-sector unions anywhere they can.
All this as Democrats find themselves cowed or outmaneuvered in statehouses where they once could put up a fight. In many states, they are unable to do much except hope that voters will see these actions as an overreach by the Republicans they elected - an unwanted revolution to be reversed down the road.
A tug to the right was in the cards ever since voters put the GOP in charge of 25 legislatures and 29 governors’ offices in the 2010 elections. That is turning out to be every bit as key to shaping the nation’s ideological direction as anything happening in Washington.
A close-up review of the first wave of legislative action shows the striking degree to which the GOP has been able to break through gridlock and achieve improbable ends. The historic and contentious curbs on public-sector bargaining in Wisconsin, quickly followed by similar action in Ohio, were but a signal that the status quo is being challenged on multiple fronts.
The realignment in Florida has produced a law imposing more accountability on teachers, along with 18 proposed abortion restrictions, some bound to become law. Immigration controls are motivating lawmakers far from borders, constitutional amendments against gay marriage are picking up steam, Michigan is shortening the period people can get jobless benefits and Indiana may soon have the broadest school-voucher program in the U.S.
In Missouri, a tax cut sought by business for 10 years has been given final legislative approval, and Democrats are putting up little resistance to Republican priorities they once tied in knots.
“You can’t get up on every issue when you’re in the minority,” said state Sen. Tim Green, a Democrat from St. Louis. “So you pick the ones you’re most passionate about.”
In North Carolina, where Republicans won control of both legislative levers for the first time since 1870, the party has secured approval in at least one chamber for charter-school expansion, limits on damages in medical-malpractice suits and a bill that would create separate crimes for the death or injury of a fetus at any stage of development. North Carolina is also among nearly a dozen states where an initiative to require photo IDs at polls is getting traction. Democrats and civil libertarians worry photo-ID rules would suppress minority and legal-immigrant voting.
Conservatives welcome the pace and breadth of it all.
“When you have one side that’s been put out in the legislative wilderness, there’s a lot of pent-up ideas that are going to move quickly,” said Dallas Woodhouse, director of Americans for Prosperity’s North Carolina branch.
It’s not all coming up tulips for the tea party or the social conservatives, however.
In Montana, Republican leaders are struggling to keep their eye on the big picture - cutting spending and developing natural resources - while the swollen GOP freshman class peppers the Legislative Assembly with calls to nullify federal laws, create an armed citizens’ militia, legalize spear hunting, force FBI agents to get a sheriff’s OK before arresting anyone, and more.
“Stop scaring our constituents and stop letting us look like buffoons,” veteran Republican state Rep. Walt McNutt told the aggressive newcomers.
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