Conservatives Plot Their Course on the Rising 'Sea of Red' in State Capitals

Shortly after the November election, with the nation’s political attention focused on the Trump transition, an influential advocacy group met outside Washington to discuss how to leverage the extraordinary shift of power to Republicans in the rest of the country.

The American Legislative Exchange Council — a nonprofit better known as ALEC — briefed its members and allied groups on the bright future for its agenda now that Republicans will effectively control 68 of the nation’s 99 state legislative bodies, as well as 33 governor’s mansions. Among other things, group members said they would push bills to reduce corporate taxes, weaken unions, privatize schooling and influence the ideological debate on college campuses.

“We can pretty much do whatever we want to right now,” said Rep. Jim DeCesare, a Republican state legislator in Kentucky, where the party gained the state House for the first time in nearly a century.

DeCesare, who had been minority whip, described plans for “a pretty intense agenda” including a so-called right-to-work law allowing employees who are covered by collective bargaining agreements to opt out of joining labor unions. Another, he said, would be repealing rules that require government contractors to pay employees more than the minimum wage. Neighboring states competing for new businesses, he said, had already gutted such regulations.

“We’ve got some catching up to do, but we plan to make up a lot of ground in a very short time,” DeCesare said. “This is our time to shine.”

Another ALEC official, Michael Bowman, told the group that outside advocates, not lawmakers, held the key to success. “Legislators are not the trailblazers of developing policies,” Bowman said. “They’re actually the retail consumers.”

ALEC, founded in 1973, acts as a clearinghouse for business-friendly model bills. Among its major donors are the billionaires Charles and David Koch. Members include corporations and their lobbyists, along with hundreds of legislators who work together to craft free-market legislation offered in many states at once. The group has successfully advanced bills imposing voter ID rules and loosening labor and environmental regulations.

Because the group generally allies with Republicans, November’s results provide the best chance yet to turn its ideas into law. In Iowa, for example, the party regained dominance in the state Senate, winning a trifecta of both chambers and the governorship for the first time in almost two decades. Republicans expanded their lead in the Pennsylvania Senate to a two-thirds majority, large enough to threaten to override vetoes by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. Even in North Carolina, where Democrat Roy Cooper eked out a win for governor, Republicans retained their veto-proof majorities in the legislature, where lawmakers have pushed through a series of controversial laws, including one that rolled back protections for transgender people using public bathrooms. The number of states where Republicans control both the legislature and the governor’s office will rise from 23 to 25. The total number of Republican legislators nationwide also has grown.

The post-election lunch meeting, held Nov. 17 at the organization’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, included members of ALEC and other conservative groups, with some calling into a private conference line. Ashley Varner, a strategic communications director at ALEC, opened the session by pointing out that with the power shift in Washington, opportunities at the state level were flying under the radar. “There’s a sea of red,” Varner said, adding that hundreds of incumbents from both parties had been ousted. “What are we going to do with these new legislatures?’

Inez Feltscher, director of ALEC’s education task force, outlined plans to advocate for legislation giving money to parents who take their children out of public schools — stipends they could use for private schooling or other educational expenses. Critics of these “education savings accounts” say they’re a drain on public-school funding, while proponents argue they give parents a chance to pick the best situation for their kids.

Feltscher acknowledged another motivation: “To break the monopoly on one of the most important institutions in America.” Conservatives have long been at odds with teachers unions over the structure and curriculum of public schools. “We’ve let the left take over almost all of the cultural institutions of this country,” she said.