On the surface, the GOP's control of a majority of state legislatures is a success story for Republicans. Such power certainly paid off when it came to redistricting after the 2010 midterms, allowing the party to protect its House majority.
But as Republican-dominated state legislatures pass controversial legislation, there's a risk for the party nationally. Already, national Democrats have dinged the GOP for cracking down on abortion and illegal immigration, citing legislation that passed through Republican-controlled state legislatures. In 2012, Virginia enacted a measure that required women considering an abortion to have an ultrasound. National Democrats used the proposal to attack Gov. Bob McDonnell and raise campaign funds.
Republicans are already fending off negative headlines that could hurt their ability to modernize the party's image. Virginia Attorney General and GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli argued that the state should be permitted to use an anti-sodomy law to prosecute someone charged with assaulting a minor. Mother Jones's headline, "Virginia Gov. Candidate Cuccinelli Defending Law That Forbids Oral Sex," is already being circulated by the Democratic Governors Association.
And in North Dakota, where the governor signed off on a new law that restricts abortions, Democrats are already blasting e-mails to supporters asking for donations.
Here's a look at five pieces of legislation that Democrats could be exploiting in the coming months.
1. What passed: North Dakota recently enacted legislation that would outlaw abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
Why it matters: Almost as soon as Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed the legislation last month, abortion-rights groups vowed to challenge the law in court. That sets up the next round in a long-running political battle on the divisive issue of abortion.
2. What passed: The Alabama Legislature passed new regulations for abortion clinics requiring that doctors administering abortions have admission privileges at local hospitals.
Why it matters: Like the law in North Dakota, the Alabama measure almost guarantees a legal challenge. Democratic lawmakers in the state have already vowed to attack Republicans on the issue in the 2014 elections.
3. What passed: The Arkansas Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's veto on an abortion law similar to North Dakota's.
Why it could matter: As in North Dakota, the Arkansas legislation sparked legal opposition almost immediately. The issue is politically difficult especially for the state's lone Democrat in Congress, Sen. Mark Pryor, who is up for reelection in 2014. Pryor has said he's opposed to abortion except in cases of rape or incest or to save the woman's life. While Pryor has carved out a reputation as an independent, any chance to link him to the progressive wing of the party could damage him.
4. What passed: The Alaska House passed a gun nullification bill on Feb. 25. The bill maintains that state laws supersede federal laws, meaning federal agents could be charged with a crime for enforcing any potential firearm or ammunition ban.
Why it could matter: Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is running for reelection in 2014. He criticized the Republican-backed legislation, but underscored that he is a full-throated supporter of Second Amendment rights, a sign of the difficulty facing blue-state Democrats who will need their red-state colleagues if gun legislation is to pass the Senate.
5. What’s on the agenda: The North Carolina House is considering a bill that would permit the state to declare an official religion and nullify any federal legislation designed to end prayer at public institutions in the state.
Why it could matter: North Carolina is a much more politically competitive state than its Southern neighbors, and culturally conservative measures like this could backfire with growing numbers of suburban and urban voters. Its sponsors dispute that it is controversial, arguing the measure secures the state’s rights. Sen. Kay Hagan, up for reelection in 2014, is betting the state has changed in a more culturally liberal direction, announcing her support for same-sex marriage last month.
This article appears in the April 5, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.