The mere idea of Republicans sponsoring death penalty repeal bills in great numbers was once considered an unlikely notion. However, Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty recently released a report revealing how Republicans are championing measures to end capital punishment at never-before-seen rates.
The shift is stunning. Consider this: From 2000 to 2012, the annual number of Republican repeal champions never rose above single digits. Yet, from 2013 onward, the number surged and has been gaining momentum. In fact, in 2016, Republicans accounted for more than one-third of all sponsors nationwide, and there were 10 times as many elected Republican advocates that year than there were in 2000. What’s causing this massive shift?
The makeup of many legislatures across the country has been altered. Following the emergence of the limited government, constitutional Tea Party revolution beginning in 2009, numerous conservative activists were elected to state posts. As a result, legislatures have grown ever more conservative, and many of these Tea partyers, already suspicious of government’s abuse of power, ultimately concluded that costs associated with implementing the death penalty clashed with their principles of fiscal restraint.
As many legislatures have swung to the right, their membership is also growing younger as more millennials are being elected. However, young Americans, especially Christian millennials, are statistically more likely to oppose the death penalty. Together, energetic Tea partyers and youthful legislators have joined with many of their more established Republican colleagues, including Catholics, who have disapproved of, or at least questioned, capital punishment for years. When these conservative factions intermingled, they realized that together they had a real chance at repealing the death penalty for the right reasons.
These same legislators have been emboldened by their constituents to take definitive action because voters across all population segments are turning against the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is at a 45-year low, with some surveys showing that a clear majority prefers repealing and replacing the death penalty. This polling is not lost on keen state legislators who maintain a pulse on their constituents’ wishes. Furthermore, many capital punishment proponents simply aren’t that supportive of the program. According to a Death Penalty Information Center poll, the majority of respondents claimed that they wouldn’t vote against a legislator who supported repeal. With death penalty opposition rising and capital punishment supporters feeling less than impassioned, many freshman and veteran legislators alike feel that the time is right to make a move.
But what caused this drop in conservative support in the first place? While many had already been opposed to the death penalty, even steadfast proponents of capital punishment are shifting their views for a number of reasons. First, there has been an ongoing educational campaign to inform conservatives of the death penalty’s many practical failures. Consequently, conservatives are recognizing that capital punishment is a broken government program that runs counter to conservatism’s foundational tenets of valuing life, fiscal responsibility and limited government.
Moreover, the death penalty’s high-profile failures are simply too much for Americans to ignore any longer. All too frequently new stories emerge of pitiable individuals being wrongly convicted and sentenced to die. The mistake-ridden program is also costly. Studies are continually released, exposing the death penalty’s high costs to taxpayers. Meanwhile, the few states that still execute inmates far too often botch these executions — something the public clearly has no appetite for.
For other voters, their death penalty views boil down to confidence. According to the Pew Research Center, distrust in the government remains near a record high. From 2013 to the present, only around 22 percent of Americans said they mostly trusted the government. This pervasive lack of trust extends to the government-run death penalty, too, and for good reason.
Finally, conservative political leaders are increasingly voicing their death penalty concerns. I, along with Oliver North, Jay Sekulow, Ron Paul, Michael Steele, Ramesh Ponnuru and others, have spoken at length about why Americans should oppose capital punishment. This has demonstrated to many Republicans that, as conservatives, they ought to work toward the death penalty’s repeal.
For me as a conservative, I know that government acts are fraught with mistakes. As a Catholic, however, my opposition comes from a perspective of faith. I could not imagine Jesus pulling the switch to end a life — especially when there are alternatives that still protect the community.
As state legislatures undergo their makeovers, the public turns against the death penalty, and political leaders voice their capital punishment concerns, we should expect to see even more from Republican officials. Republicans will likely continue to sponsor repeal bills with increasing frequency and reverse the flawed criminal justice policies once advocated by their ideological predecessors of the 1980s and 1990s.
• Richard Viguerie is pioneer of political direct mail for conservative candidates and is the chairman of ConservativeHQ.com.