The events in Tennessee on Thursday put a new focus on how the battle over major wedge issues like gun control, abortion and LGBTQ issues are largely playing out in state legislatures across the country.
In a stunning move, the Tennessee state House’s Republican super majority expelled two Democratic representatives for protesting the state’s gun laws on the House floor following a mass shooting at a Nashville school that left six people dead.
The news out of Tennessee also comes as state legislatures across the country contend with other contested cultural issues like transgender and abortion rights. On Tuesday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) signed legislation that would classify gender-affirming health care to minors as a felony crime. Meanwhile in Florida, the state Senate passed legislation that would ban most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
“More and more people are starting to understand that what they thought for decades has been a Washington, D.C., problem is actually a Raleigh problem, and a Lansing problem, and a Harrisburg problem, and a Tallahassee problem,” said Simone Leiro, chief communications officer at The States Project, a Democratic-allied group. “Each of these state legislatures being responsible for the day-to-day lives of their constituents is becoming more clear to people every day.”
Christina Polizzi, communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, argued that much of the attention being shed on state legislatures started with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion at the federal level, last year.
“I think because of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, who have now kicked abortion rights back to the states, I think that reality is taking center stage and that people are starting to understand how important it is that they know who is in their legislature,” Polizzi said.
The Tennessee statehouse wasn’t the only one to make headlines this week.
In Kansas, state lawmakers voted on Wednesday to overturn Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) veto of legislation that prohibits transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports from kindergarten through college. Additionally, Republicans in the state gave the greenlight to legislation on Thursday that would permit parents to bar their children from lessons on LGBTQ issues and topics in the classroom. And in Indiana on Wednesday, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed legislation that bans all gender-affirming care for minors.
Democrats argue that the legislation is a slap in the face to the trans community and blocks progress.
“There is a power struggle that is taking place in this country between individuals who want things to remain as is and as they used to be and those who are really trying to progress,” said Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), the first openly LGBTQ Black person elected to the state’s legislature. “This really has nothing to do with policy. All it is we’re seeing right now is about power.”
And Democrats could not be farther apart than their Republican counterparts on issues being fought out in the culture wars.
“From the Republican standpoint, what you’re seeing is a lot of people have to deliver on their promises in terms of what they ran on, which is pro-Second Amendment, pro-life,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
Conservatives and many Republicans have approached the culture wars in the country as a battle to protect “traditional values” pertaining to the family and education.
“Idaho, I believe, is a state that has espoused traditional values,” said Republican Idaho state Rep. Barbara Ehardt. “I believe as legislatures here and in other states that’s where the battle is, because the federal government has done nothing but abandon our American principles and our constitutional principles.”
Ehardt recently sponsored legislation in Idaho that would make it illegal for an adult to help a minor seek an abortion. The Idaho state lawmaker has also been a vocal critic of transgender women competing in women’s sports.
“As we’ve gone along through the last ten years but really the last 20 years, we’ve seen a huge culture shift,” she said, referring specifically to topics being taught in the classroom.
Republicans and conservatives at the state legislature level have been aided by national social conservative groups looking to tout their own agenda from the grassroots.
“States have been really important for social conservatives to build their movement,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the conservative think tank the American Principles Project.
“All of these fights have really started at the state level and the states have been very important in building the national coalition,” he continued.
The latest fight at the state level took place on Thursday in Tennessee over gun laws and ended with the expulsion of two Democratic state lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. Along with state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D), they were stripped of their committee assignments for participating in a protest following last week’s mass shooting in Nashville. Johnson, who is white, survived expulsion, while Pearson and Jones, who are Black, did not.
“I had to check my phone to make sure it was still 2023 and not 1963,” Jones said when asked about the expulsions.
Tennessee House Majority Leader Majority Leader William Lamberth (R) denied race played a role in the expulsions, saying, “Our members literally didn’t look at the ethnicity of the members up for expulsion.”
But some Republicans say they view the expulsion as an act of retaliation against the political left in a broader sense.
“I think what happened in Tennessee was a chance for Republicans to prove to their base that they’re going to fight back politically,” said one GOP strategist. “When you throw in the Jan. 6 situation and you throw in Alvin Bragg, this was a situation where they’re going to prove to their base that we’re going to fight back politically because you can’t continue to let the Democrats punch you in the face.”
Both conservatives and liberals agree that the battles being waged in state capitals across the country are nowhere near finished and could play a defining role in 2024.
“The idea of 2024 isn’t a matter of excitement, it’s a matter of worry of concern and love of country, and that’s what’s motivating people,” said Ehardt, the Idaho Republican.
Jones, one of the Tennessee Democrats who was just expelled, urged people “to stay awake.”
“Because this is about to be a very interesting ride that we’re about to go on,” he said.