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What Republicans And Democrats Are Doing In The States Where They Have Total Power

The recent passage of a law in Alabama that essentially bans all abortions in the state resulted in a barrage of coverage of other abortion restrictions being adopted in conservative areas this year. But as FiveThirtyEight illustrated in a story last week, this is not a new trend — Republican-controlled states have been chipping away at abortion access since the 2010 elections, which swept the GOP into power in state legislatures and governors’ mansions across the country.

Still, the Alabama law got us thinking … what policies in addition to abortion limits are being passed in a multitude of states? More specifically, what laws are being passed in “trifecta” states, in which one party controls both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office? These states are ripe for bills to pass easily because the other party can’t stop them. And they serve as a good indicator of each party’s priorities and what it might do at the federal level given unfettered power.1

Political trifectas key issue again in 2020

There is no formal clearinghouse for state policy changes, so I looked for legislative patterns and consulted with national groups that work on state policy, such as the left-leaning State Innovation Exchange. The result is a non-exhaustive list of legislation that has passed in multiple trifecta states, either blue or red.

The 14 states — which are home to about 112 million people — that are totally controlled by Democrats are pushing forward an agenda of, among other things, hiking the minimum wage significantly above the federal $7.25 per hour, banning (for minors) therapy that is designed to “convert” gay and lesbian people from homosexuality (this treatment is widely condemned by medical experts) and mandating that the Electoral College votes in states go to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote.

The issues being pushed in liberal states aren’t too surprising. They reflect a combination of (i) initiatives the Obama administration was pushing in its latter stages but couldn’t get approved nationally because the GOP controlled Congress; (ii) reactions to the Trump era (particularly trying to ensure that another president is not elected without winning the popular vote), and (iii) priorities of the party’s activists.

The 22 GOP-totally-controlled states — which are home to about 136 million people — have tried to eliminate restrictions on gun rights, stop cities from becoming “sanctuaries” for undocumented immigrants and weaken the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement that targets the Israeli government for how it treats Palestinians.

Similar to the Democratic list, this legislative agenda represents (i) Trump administration priorities that can’t get approved in Congress; (ii) reactions to the Obama administration (particularly the attempts to limit Medicaid, which was greatly expanded in the Obama years), and (iii) longtime conservative activists’ causes (limiting gun restrictions, for example).

Again, this is not a complete list of policies being enacted in a huge swath of the states. (We purposefully left out abortion, which is covered in more detail here.) And some of these ideas have crossed the red-blue divide — for example, some GOP-controlled states, like North Dakota, are joining the push to decriminalize marijuana, and many blue states, including California and New York, have enacted anti-BDS provisions.

It’s also worth noting which policies are not proliferating at the state level. Despite national momentum in the Democratic Party for enrolling more people in Medicare-style government-run health insurance plans, only Washington has adopted a so-called public option at the state level. And even as some of the party’s presidential candidates emphasize hiking rates on the wealthiest Americans, totally controlled Democratic states haven’t been as enthusiastic. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s push for a major tax increase on millionaires, for example, is facing strong resistance from his fellow Democrats in the state legislature.

On the GOP side, national Republicans, particularly Education Secretary Betsy Devos, are strong supporters of charter schools, as an alternative to traditional public schools. But of the six states that don’t currently have laws allowing for the creation of charters, four (Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia) are totally controlled by the GOP.

And to be sure, trifectas don’t represent each party at the state level in totality — there are Republicans who sometimes back liberal legislation and Democrats who embrace conservative priorities. For example, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, recently signed a minimum wage increase. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has backed some abortion limits.

All that said, Sacramento, Salem (Oregon), Santa Fe and Springfield (Illinois) are very different places but might at times have very similar legislation on the floors of their state legislatures. And if you live in Iowa, it’s actually fairly useful to see what laws are passing in Alabama and Texas — they are likely to come to your state soon.

From ABC News:

Federal judge blocks law making most Mississippi abortions illegal


  1. If you’re wondering why some issues, and even specific bills, tend to proliferate across states, there are a few reasons. First, there are some policy questions on some issues (abortion, for example) that don’t really vary that much by state. Secondly, there are national groups who are both aware of how hard it is to pass legislation in Washington and understand the importance of state policy, so they push their ideas everywhere, often successfully. Third, some state legislatures have few full-time staffers, so borrowing ideas from other states or national groups is easier than writing their own bills. Finally, officials at the state level are both taking cues from their counterparts in other states and sometimes looking to out-do them.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.