Concern in G.O.P. Over State Focus on Social Issues
Seth Perlman/Associated Press
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin signed a law allowing schools to teach abstinence rather than contraception.
Fiscal issues and union rights were front and center in many Republican-controlled legislatures last year. But this year, with the nation heading into the heart of a presidential race and voters consumed by the country’s economic woes, much of the debate in statehouses has centered on social issues.
Schelzig Erik/Associated Press
Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee said he worried that a law to protect teachers who question the theory of evolution could hurt the state’s reputation.
Tennessee enacted a law this month intended to protect teachers who question the theory of evolution. Arizona moved to ban nearly all abortions after 20 weeks, and Mississippi imposed regulations that could close the state’s only abortion clinic. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin signed a law allowing the state’s public schools to teach about abstinence instead of contraception.
The recent flurry of socially conservative legislation, on issues ranging from expanding gun rights to placing new restrictions on abortion, comes as Republicans at the national level are eager to refocus attention on economic issues.
Some Republican strategists and officials, reluctant to be identified because they do not want to publicly antagonize the party’s base, fear that the attention these divisive social issues are receiving at the state level could harm the party’s chances in November, when its hopes of winning back the White House will most likely rest with independent voters in a handful of swing states.
One seasoned strategist called the problem potentially huge. But others said that actions taken by a handful of states would probably have little impact on the national campaign.
Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a Republican who created a stir a couple of years ago with his suggestion for a “truce” on social issues, said in an interview that such issues are best handled at the state and local levels. They become more polarizing, he said, when people try to settle them nationally.
“If we don’t address soon what I believe are the lethal threats of our debts, our unaffordable commitments, our slow-growth economy, and so forth, every other problem will seem small,” said Mr. Daniels, whose state did see union protests this year when it enacted a so-called right-to-work law. He noted that Mitt Romney’s campaign was already emphasizing the economy at every opportunity.
“The genuine risk to our party comes if we allow it to appear that these are our first preoccupations,” he said.
But John Weaver, a Republican strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Senator John McCain and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., said that the attention Republicans were paying to social issues at the state level could cost the party support from several important blocs of voters, including independents, women and young people voting for the first or second time.
“I think it’s problematic,” he said, “not just for this national election we’re facing, but for the long-term health of the party.”
The risks of focusing on social issues were highlighted this week when the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business-backed group that pushes conservative laws at the state level, announced that it would be refocusing its efforts on economic issues. Several sponsors had recently withheld their support after the group came under public pressure for advocating voting restrictions and self-defense legislation modeled on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which became an issue after the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
It is not only Republican-led states that have turned to social issues as some of the immediate pressures of the fiscal crisis have begun to ease: Washington and Maryland, which are controlled by Democrats, both enacted laws legalizing same-sex marriage this year, and Connecticut voted this month to repeal its death penalty.
But Republicans have more states: recent election victories have left them in control of both the executive and legislative branches of 21, while Democrats control both branches in only 11, and power is divided in the others.
Many Republican governors are focusing on fiscal issues as well: in states including Kansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee, Republican governors have been pressing for tax cuts. But debates over social issues have drawn much of the attention in some states.
After Tennessee’s Republican-led Legislature passed a bill to protect school teachers who review “the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories” in areas including “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning,” it drew denunciations from a number of scientists and civil libertarians. Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, decided this month to let the bill become law without his signature.
Mr. Haslam said in an interview that the law had passed by a wide margin, so the Legislature could have easily overridden a veto. And he said that while he feared that the law would muddy state policy for teachers rather than clarify it, he had been assured by state education officials that it would not actually change the way science is taught in Tennessee.
But he said he also worried that the law could damage the reputation of a state that was home to another famous legal battle over the teaching of evolution, the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925.
“One of the things as governor, you’re always out — I’m out selling Tennessee all the time to businesses and other folks,” Mr. Haslam said during a recent visit to New York, adding that the state had heavily focused on the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in recent years. “So you worry about misperceptions, sure. I wouldn’t be honest if I said I didn’t do that. But if I thought it was actually going to harm the scientific standards, I would have vetoed it.”
When Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, appeared on the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” last week to talk about his state’s successful efforts to lower its unemployment rate, he found himself facing a number of questions about something else: the law he signed requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion, which received a great deal of attention this year.
“We had 860 bills this session; one of them reached my desk on abortion,” Mr. McDonnell said. “So to say that it was some broader trend is not the case.”
So far this year, 75 bills placing restrictions on abortion have passed at least one legislative chamber, which is more than normally pass in an election year, according to a tally by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization. But it is below the pace established last year, when Republicans first won control of many statehouses and a record 127 restrictions were passed by at least one house of the legislatures during the first quarter.
Bills expanding gun rights have passed in a number of states. Maine recently joined several others that passed a bill prohibiting restrictions on the right to carry or sell firearms during a declared state of emergency. Arizona enacted a law requiring law enforcement agencies to sell forfeited guns within a year, rather than destroying them, as many local agencies do. Oklahoma enacted a law that will limit the liability that gun ranges face for accidents.
Now, as legislative sessions continue in many states, social issues continue to be debated and, sometimes, passed. On Tuesday, a Tennessee legislative committee advanced a measure that some have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill because it “prohibits the teaching of or furnishing of materials on human sexuality other than heterosexuality” in elementary school.
Speaking before that move, Governor Haslam of Tennessee noted that people elected to office have varying priorities.
“I think as governor, I was elected to run this, you know, $30 billion, 40,000-employee entity called the State of Tennessee that provides services from managing prisons to educating Ph.D.’s to helping families with mental health issues, and my job is getting the very best service for the very lowest price,” he said. “People run for office for different reasons. And we have some members of our Legislature that that’s the motivating factor, certain social issues. My response is, that’s how democracy works.”