Mar 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The GOP's new power centers

A photo of Brian Kemp signing the law with three men surrounding him at a table.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signs the voting law. Photo: Gov. Brian Kemp's Twitter feed.

Democrats control Washington, but Republicans have a mighty counterweight that gets little attention: dominance in the states and the courts.

State of play: The GOP controls a majority of statehouses and state legislatures + more state Supreme Court justices lean Republican than Democrat. All of this is backed by Republican-appointed majorities on federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme court. 

Why it matters: That one-two punch gives Republicans domain over a huge swath of America's governing system, including power over voting laws and the redistricting of House seats, plus the ability to use state courts to their advantage.

  • Just as Biden is taking a maximalist approach to Washington power; Republicans are doing the same state-by-state: 

We saw that power vividly on Friday when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new voting law that significantly tightens access to polls:

  • Elections "will never be the same in Georgia," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports atop today's front page, with changes that "will be felt by millions of voters, potentially with enough impact to alter the results of close elections in a sharply divided state."
  • There'll be tighter ID requirements for absentee and in-person voting, per-county limits on drop boxes, a ban on giving food and water to voters waiting in line, and more state control of county voting boards. 

Democrats see such changes, which Republicans are pushing in 43 states, as a real threat to their chances of winning congressional and other races.

  • President Biden yesterday called the Georgia law "an atrocity": "This is Jim Crow in the 21st Century. It must end. We have a moral and Constitutional obligation to act."

Another big lever that Republican governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have used aggressively: the ability to control the reopening of state economies amid the pandemic. 

By the numbers: Republicans have 27 of the 50 state governors, and control 30 state legislatures (compared to 18 for Democrats, with Minnesota divided and Nebraska nonpartisan). 

The catch: Republicans admit that states face very real limits in a federally dominated system. The most notable is federal control of economic policy, which leaves the states on the margins of most debates.

What’s next: Around the country, Republican-controlled state legislatures are trying to thwart Washington with action on guns, voting rights, abortion, transgender youth and participation of transgender students in athletics.

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