‘The testing ground’: how Republican state parties grow Trumpism 2.0

In Oklahoma, Idaho, Wyoming and California, the next generation of GOP extremists are passing laws, picking their own voters … and preparing for power

The website of the Oklahoma Republican party has a running countdown to the 2024 presidential election measured in “Maga days”, “Maga hours”, “Maga minutes” and “Maga seconds” – Maga being shorthand for Donald Trump’s timeworn slogan, “Make America great again”.

The state party chairman, John Bennett, a veteran of three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has described Islam as a “cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out” and posted a yellow Star of David on Facebook to liken coronavirus vaccine mandates to the persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

This is just one illustration of how Republican parties at the state level are going to new extremes in their embrace of Trump, an ominous sign ahead of midterm elections next year and a potential glimpse of the national party’s future. Yet the radicalisation often takes place under the radar of the national media.

“We are not a swing state and we’re nowhere near a swing state so no one’s looking,” said Alicia Andrews, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic party. “And because no one is looking at Oklahoma, we are allowed to be way more extreme than a lot of states.

Andrews pointed to the example of a state law passed by the Republican majority in April that grants immunity to drivers who unintentionally injure or kill protesters and stiffens penalties for demonstrators who block public roadways.

“Only three states passed it, with Oklahoma being the first,” she said. “And you know why? Because there wasn’t national attention. We were talking about Florida passing it and Texas passing it. No one was even considering what was going on in Oklahoma and it quietly passed in Oklahoma.

Similarly, Andrew argues, while other states were debating “critical race theory” in schools, in Oklahoma a ban was rammed through with little coverage. Another concern is gerrymandering, the process whereby a party redraws district boundaries for electoral advantage.

Andrews, the first African American to lead the Oklahoma Democratic party, said: Our legislators are in a special session right now to review our maps and they are really eroding an urban core, taking at least 6,000 Hispanic Americans out of an urban district and moving them to a rural district, thus denuding their votes. I didn’t think that they could make it worse but they are.”

Oklahoma is a deep red state. As of August, its house and senate had 121 Republicans and 28 Democrats. It continues to hold “Stop the Steal” rallies pushing Trump’s “big lie” that Joe Biden robbed him of victory in the presidential election.

Andrews warns that Republicans in her state are indicative of a national trend.

“Their stated strategy is start at the municipal level, take over the state, take over the nation. So while everybody’s talking about the infrastructure plan and the Build Back Better plan, they’re rubbing their hands together and making differences in states.”

She added: “We’re like the testing ground for their most radical right exercises, and once they perfect it here, they can take it to other states.”

‘Owning the libs’

Republican state parties’ rightward spiral has included promotion of Trump’s “big lie” about electoral fraud, white nationalism and QAnon, an antisemitic conspiracy theory involving Satan-worshipping cannibals and a child sex-trafficking ring. It can find bizarre and disturbing expression.

Arizona staged a sham “audit” of the 2020 presidential election that only confirmed Biden’s victory in the state. Last month in Idaho, when Governor Brad Little was out of the state, his lieutenant, Janice McGeachin, issued an executive order to prevent employers requiring employees be vaccinated against Covid-19. Little rescinded it on his return.

The Wyoming state party central committee this week voted to no longer recognise the congresswoman Liz Cheney – daughter of the former vice-president Dick Cheney and a hardline conservative – as a Republican, its second formal rebuke for her criticism of Trump and vote to impeach him for his role in the US Capitol attack.

Nina Hebert, communications director of the state Democratic party, said: “Wyoming is not exempt from the extremism that Trump has intentionally cultivated and fuelled and continues to court today.

“He was a popular figure in Wyoming in the 2016 election and he retains that popularity amongst voters in the state, which I think is the most red in the nation.”

Gerrymandering is a longstanding problem, Hebert said, but Trump’s gleeful celebration of the 6 January riot has opened floodgates.

“They have created situations where Republican-controlled state legislatures have no reason to pretend even that they’re not just trying to hold on to power. This has become something that is acceptable within the Republican party.”

The shift has also been evident in policy in Florida, Texas and other states where Republicans have taken aim at abortion access, gun safety, trans and voting rights. Often, zealous officials seem to be trying to outdo one another in outraging liberals, known as “owning the libs”.

Former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders greets supporters at Colton’s Steak House in Cabot, Arkansas.
The former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders greets supporters at Colton’s Steak House in Cabot, Arkansas. Photograph: Andrew DeMillo/AP

The drift is not confined to red states. When Republicans in California, a Democratic bastion, sought to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, they rallied around a Trumpian populist in the conservative talk radio host Larry Elder rather than a more mainstream figure such as Kevin Faulconer, a former mayor of San Diego.

Kurt Bardella, an adviser to the Democratic National Committee who was once an aide to a leading California Republican, said: “To me that was a bellwether. If even a state like California can’t get a more moderate, pragmatic Republican party at the state level, there’s really no hope for any of the parties in any state at this point.

“They’re leaning so hard into this anti-democratic, authoritarian, non-policy-based iteration and identity. The old adage, ‘As goes California, so goes the country,’ well, look at what the California Republican party did and we’re seeing that play out across the board.”

‘Wackadoodle Republicans’

Like junior sports teams, state parties are incubators and pipelines for generations of politicians heading to Washington. The primary election system tends to favour the loudest and most extreme voices, who can whip up enthusiasm in the base.

Trump has been promiscuous in his endorsements of Maga-loyal candidates for the November 2022 midterms, among them Herschel Walker, a former football star running for the Senate in Georgia despite a troubled past including allegations that he threatened his ex-wife’s life.

Other examples include Sarah Sanders, a former White House press secretary running for governor in Arkansas, and Karoline Leavitt, a 23-year-old former assistant press secretary targeting a congressional seat in New Hampshire.

This week, Amanda Chase, a state senator in Virginia and self-described “Trump in heels”, announced a bid for Congress against the Democrat Abigail Spanberger. Chase gave a speech in Washington on 6 January, hours before the insurrection, and was censured by her state senate for praising the rioters as “patriots”.

The former congressman Joe Walsh, who was part of the Tea Party, a previous conservative movement against the Republican establishment, and now hosts a podcast, said: I talked to these folks every day, and for people who think [members of Congress] Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert are nuts, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

“The Republicans at the state and local level are way, way more gone than the Republicans in Washington. We’re talking about grassroots voters and activists on the ground and eventually, to win a Republican primary at whatever level, every candidate has to listen to them.

“So you’re going to get a far larger number of wackadoodle Republicans elected to Congress in 2022 because they will reflect the craziness that’s going on state and locally right now.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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