(CNN) Donald Trump may be getting all the headlines, but partisan struggles in state capitals across the country may do far more to change America than the drama surrounding the first ex-president to be charged with a crime.
Clashes between Democrats and Republicans over issues like abortion and guns, which could also shape future voting laws and electoral maps, foreshadow the great debates to come in the 2024 presidential campaign. These simmering conflicts also reflect a nation divided over its cultural and political identity and show how sometimes small shifts in the balance of power can have momentous consequences.
In Wisconsin — one of the most competitive swing states in recent presidential elections — a liberal judge won a race for a state Supreme Court seat Tuesday in a victory that could restore abortion rights in the state and lead to the redrawing of maps that the GOP had shaped to their advantage. The magnitude of her victory — by around 200,000 votes — will ring alarm bells for the GOP.
In North Carolina, Republicans were celebrating after a Democratic state representative, who was elected by a nearly 20-point margin a few months ago, flipped to the GOP this week, giving the party veto-proof majorities in both state legislative chambers as they seek new curbs on abortion and more restrictive election laws.
America’s tortured divide on firearms is driving an extraordinary showdown in Tennessee. Instead of working to combat mass shootings after last week’s massacre at a Nashville school, Republican state legislators want to kick out three Democrats who joined a gun control protest.
National Democrats are, meanwhile, looking at Chicago, where Bernie Sanders-backed progressive Brandon Johnson won Tuesday’s mayoral runoff. He beat a moderate with a tough-on-crime message by making a more nuanced pitch than his previous support for calls to “defund the police.” (Johnson said during the campaign he didn’t want to slash police funding.)
And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who says his state is a laboratory for a more conservative America ahead of his possible White House bid, signed a bill into law earlier this week allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit. The state Senate also passed a highly restrictive 6-week abortion ban Monday.
This remarkable series of local battles is not always noticed in Washington, where lawmakers are gearing up for a looming debt ceiling crisis and arguing about aid to Ukraine.
But political brushfires that begin in states can later rage at the national level and define future general election clashes. It’s already clear, for example, that gender and transgender issues will be a dominant question in 2024, as Republicans slam Democrats for embracing policies that they describe as “woke.”
The intensity of exchanges on issues like abortion, gender and guns raises another possibility. For all of Trump’s appeal to grassroots Republican voters, he is running a campaign that is almost exclusively rooted in his fury at his worsening legal problems and his claim that he is being politically persecuted to keep him out of the White House. The fights brewing in the states suggest many voters have other things on their minds.
A result that will raise eyebrows across the political world
Wisconsin has reeled from a conservative revival and a subsequent liberal backlash ever since Republican Scott Walker was first elected governor in 2010. It was critical to the victories of Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 and remains on a political knife edge heading into a new presidential election cycle.
In the latest political shift in the state, liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz easily beat conservative Daniel Kelly in a nonpartisan election where the parties nevertheless had clear favorites. The contest attracted significant outside spending, making it the most expensive state judicial race in history, and Protasiewicz’s winning margin was about 10 times the size of Trump and Biden’s respective cushions of around 20,000 votes.
All elections are unique, but the Wisconsin judge’s victory underscores the power of abortion as a mobilizing issue and may fuel concerns among GOP strategies that the issue could again hurt their candidates in 2024. The policy effects of abortion’s galvanizing electoral force could be seen in another Midwestern battleground on Wednesday. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a repeal of the state’s 1931 abortion ban, which was possible because voters last fall handed Democrats control of both legislative chambers.
Now with a liberal majority, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to overturn a pre-Civil War law that bans abortion in nearly all circumstances, which came back into force after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Protasiewicz’s win will be a beacon of hope for Democrats who were demoralized by the loss of federal abortion rights last year.
Sean Eldridge — the founder and president of Stand Up America, a progressive advocacy group — said Protasiewicz would act as a check on “conservative efforts to take away reproductive freedom, disenfranchise voters of color through racial gerrymandering, and overturn election results they don’t like. Her victory helps build a firewall for our democracy and the freedom to vote ahead of 2024.”
But the lesson of Wisconsin’s turbulent political decade is that local Republicans, some of whom are in thrall to Trumpism, are likely to fight back hard. Indeed, Tuesday’s election also saw Republicans win an open state Senate seat, giving the GOP a supermajority that could be used to impeach top office holders, theoretically including Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. In an interview with WISN in Wisconsin last month, Dan Knodl — the Republican who won on Tuesday — said he would consider a move to impeach Protasiewicz. At the time, she was serving as a Milwaukee circuit court judge. It is not clear if the legislature could remove her from the Supreme Court.
Angry twist to the guns debate
In another striking example of gaping political polarization, the GOP-led legislature in Tennessee is seeking the expulsion of three Democratic colleagues who led a rowdy protest on the state House floor after a mass killing of three nine-year-olds and three adults at a Christian school in Nashville. Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton described the protest as an unacceptable breach of decorum and the lawmakers have already been stripped of committee posts. The Republican speaker said the protest was “at least equivalent, maybe worse,” than the mob attack by Trump supporters on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
One of the Democratic lawmakers, state Rep. Justin Pearson, explained on CNN that he supported the protest by gun reform advocates in the public gallery because he believed voices were not being heard as they demanded action on red flag laws and other gun safety measures. Polls show a majority of Americans are in favor of tighter gun restrictions, but support varies depending on the measure in question.
Pearson told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the trio knew they were breaking a House rule on decorum. “But we did not know and did not think we were doing anything that could get us expelled by exercising our First Amendment rights and encouraging those protesters and children and adults and grieving parents to do the same in the House.”
The drama in the state legislature in Nashville was matched by a remarkable twist in North Carolina this week when Democratic state Rep. Tricia Cotham switched to the GOP, saying, “The modern day Democratic Party has become unrecognizable to me.” Cotham played into the Republican conceit that the rival party has gone so far left on cultural and economic issues that it has abandoned the American mainstream, although the GOP has been on its own march to the extremes. Cotham’s move comes with fraught implications for Democrats because it gives the GOP sufficient votes in each chamber to override vetoes from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Democrats accused Cotham of betraying her voters, and Cooper warned that her actions would have grave consequences. “Rep. Cotham’s votes on women’s reproductive freedom, election laws, LGBTQ rights and strong public schools will determine the direction of the state we love,” Cooper told CNN in a statement.
The blows, meanwhile, keep coming for Democrats in Florida where a thumping reelection win by DeSantis last November and Republican control of the state legislature add up to total conservative dominance. As he seeks to appeal to Republican grassroots voters ahead of a possible presidential run, DeSantis this week further loosened Florida’s already permissive gun laws. And after he signed into law a 15-week abortion ban last year, the state Senate just passed a bill that would ban most abortions in the state after the gestational age of about six weeks — or about four weeks of pregnancy.
The hardline abortion policy might allow DeSantis to solidify a message that he’d be a more effective conservative leader than Trump. But it’s also the kind of positioning that would offer Democrats an opening should be become the Republican nominee.