Why Republicans Are Overreaching So Hard in So Many States

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In state capitals across the country, Republicans seem to be overplaying their hand. The most obvious example is abortion, which poll after poll shows most Americans support in many, if not most, circumstances. In Iowa, a state policy to cover the costs of abortion and morning-after pills for rape victims is on hold as the Republican Attorney General reviews it. In Idaho, where abortion is already illegal in all cases, it is now a crime punishable by up to five years in prison for adults who help pregnant minors to cross state lines to obtain the procedure. In South Carolina, a bill categorizing abortion the same as homicide—punishable by the death penalty—has seemed to lose steam, but nonetheless remains in play.

And those are just some of the dozens and dozens of efforts undertaken with Republican guidance to further erode abortion rights in a post-Roe world. Look around at other culture-war-flavored topics running on parallel tracks inside the GOP, and it’s clear that their leaders are chasing broadly unpopular goals: banning books and targeting drag queens; making some of the most dangerous firearms even more accessible; blocking health care for transgender individuals; fighting corporations over “wokeness”; and engaging in the most brazen political retaliation.

All of these are polling clunkers—with the important exception of gender-affirming care for trans minors—and stand to leave the 44% of Americans who identify with neither party wondering just what is animating Republican lawmakers this session, be it in statehouses or here in Washington. Here’s the most basic answer: it’s what they need to do to survive.

Now, hear me out. A lot of my liberal friends predictably will retort that this is all part of some scary, hate-filled agenda meant to oppress non-white, female, and marginalized communities. My conservative pals will say these are simply efforts to roll back government’s reach. Both can be true, but if you get down to the realpolitik of the situation, this polarized agenda is merely the logical conclusion of what happens when the party in power looks around and sees there’s no one there to stop them from drawing legislative districts however they please. The extreme gerrymandering that results means red states get redder legislatures—and, to be fair, blue states turn deeper blue; there are just fewer of them—and the resulting policies move to the extremes with few consequences.

Few consequences, that is, until someone falls out of line. It’s really, really rare to lose re-nomination as an incumbent; just 14 of the 435 House seats saw that happen last year, and roughly half were victims of ex-President Donald Trump’s petty endorsement of a challenger. Moving to last year’s November ballot, a study of most of the races on most ballots found 94% of all incumbents won another term, with congressional incumbents posting a staggering 98% win rate and state-level incumbents notching a 96% record in the general election.

This job-for-life patina is not by accident. Incumbents know it’s statistically improbable that any newcomer can credibly boot them from power. Incumbency has huge advantages, including taxpayer-funded (official) travel, the power of the bully pulpit, and donors looking to stay in good graces. But you look at the few case studies about incumbents who didn’t win re-nomination, and there are warning signs. The folks who lose spectacularly often run afoul of orthodoxy inside the party’s most fervent crowds. Rep. Liz Cheney—who dared call Jan. 6, 2021, for what it was—is a prime example. (To be fair, Rep. Caroline Maloney, who had the misfortune of being matched with another longtime institution of New York Democratic politics, is not.)

Then there are the very carefully drawn and high-cost maps themselves. Chris Cillizza smartly noted in his newsletter last week that the Cook Political Report analysis of the current map shows a scant 82 House seats in play, and only 45 would be considered truly competitive. When Cook did this analysis back in 1999, the number of potentially competitive districts totalled 164—double what it is today. Which means this: the head-to-head, D-vs.-R voting isn’t the real race. The true competition is the one that transforms a candidate into a nominee in increasingly homogeneous communities where voters are picking real estate based not only on crime and tax rates, but also their prospective neighbors’ ideologies. Being seen as an oddball for a district—AKA collaborating across the aisle on legislation—is a death sentence in a lot of districts, which explains the steady polarization in Congress itself. The name of the game for incumbents is survival, and veering to an extreme can be a gilded path for another term, while trying for comity can mean a skid toward K Street.

So as you look at the seemingly out-of-touch agenda snaking its way through state legislatures and the Republican-led parts of Washington and think the plans are incompatible with the electorate, that’s only partially true. Broadly, yes, Americans are aghast at parts of this all-culture-wars-all-the-time agenda. Some 76% of Americans tell pollsters that they’re fine with schools teaching ideas that might make students uncomfortable. And a clear majority of all Americans—64%—think abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The same number of Americans say there should be laws protecting transgender individuals from discrimination.

Read more: Exclusive: New Data Shows the Anti-Critical Race Theory Movement Is ‘Far From Over’

Dig into the numbers a little, though, and it’s quickly apparent that the lawmakers chasing these divisive notions are not completely irrational, especially when you consider their district borders are drawn to foment hardcore policies. The dirty secret among political professionals is that all voters are not created equal. Take the question of whether schools can teach ideas that make students uncomfortable. Among voters who backed Biden in 2020, just 7% of Americans said they were fine with such a block; look at Trump 2020 voters, and that number gets to 36%, meaning a full third of the GOP universe for 2024 is OK with at least some measure of book bans, and that group is probably more likely to vote in the next primary. On abortion, among Republicans, polls find 58% support for the overturning of Roe, including 35% who said they strongly support it. And while 64% of all Americans favor non-discrimination policies toward trans individuals, 58% of them also say trans student athletes should play on the team that matches their gender at birth, regardless of how they identify. Among Republicans, that number spikes to 85%, an astronomical figure that almost demands action.

Put simply: the culture wars might be less about the fight and more about how the battlefields were drawn well before any of the officeholders even showed up.

That’s a small consolation for liberals in competitive states watching as increasingly conservative lawmakers rush ahead on an agenda mismatched to what constituents actually want. Democrats may be able to claw back some of that imbalance if they ever convince their base of the reality that securing the right handful of state legislature seats would have far more power in shaping national politics than throwing millions at longshot, feel-good candidates who become darlings on social media but are chasing votes that aren’t there. Nonetheless, most of these maps are locked in place until at least 2031. Republicans know it, too, which explains why so many of them are leaning into broadly unpopular—but parochially homerun—policies.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com