(CNN)Democrats might control the White House and Congress, but Donald Trump-style conservatism is on a roll in Republican states and Washington, raising the stakes for Joe Biden in a summer critical to his goal of a transformational presidency.
GOP governors such as Greg Abbott of Texas and Florida’s Ron DeSantis are flexing power to implement America First policies as Democrats struggle to maximize their 2020 national mandate to enact their own ambitious reforms.
Their aggressive moves on immigration, easing gun restrictions, targeting social media giants and adding restrictive voting laws seem tailored to please the ex-President and, more importantly, to tap into his support base as they prep reelection races that could merge seamlessly into 2024 White House runs.
Republican-led state legislatures, meanwhile, are drafting and passing a slew of election laws that discriminate against Democratic voters and threaten nonpartisan election certifications. Changes from Arizona to Texas and Michigan to Florida are all built on Trump’s lies that last year’s election was stolen.
While elected GOP officials are implementing Trump brand policies even without him in the Oval Office, the consequences of his presidency are being felt as the new conservative Supreme Court majority shows its colors.
The top bench, remade by Trump, again reprieved Obamacare. But it gave the first glimpses of a new era of right-wing jurisprudence by further gutting the Voting Rights Act last week. The decision suggested that Democratic efforts to challenge restrictive GOP voting laws will struggle in court. And it underscored the inability of the majority party in Washington to counter the measures with broad voting rights legislation halted by Senate Republicans with a filibuster blockade. The court’s aggressive tone is leaving progressives even more desperate for 82-year-old liberal justice Stephen Breyer to retire while Senate Democrats have a chance to confirm a replacement.
Across the street, Senate Republicans still in thrall to the former President have managed to again block Democratic efforts to subject him to accountability, killing a bipartisan, independent commission to look into the Capitol insurrection. Democrats have since decided to create their own select committee to investigate the deadly riot, though some of Trump’s closest allies in the House are openly vying for a seat on the panel to embolden the ex-President’s defense and derail the probe.
Trump is meanwhile cementing his hold on the Republican Party by conducting auditions for the 2022 midterm primaries, as candidates line up to pay the price of admission: perpetuating his democracy-staining lies about voter fraud.
A challenge for Biden
The strength of America First policies in the red half of the United States underscores the nation’s gaping political divide since it comes at a time when Biden is more popular than Trump ever was nationally. With an approval rating around 50%, the President has so far appeared to retain the grip on the political middle ground that helped him defeat Trump last November.
He used July Fourth celebrations to hail a national rebound after the pandemic, even if a new Delta viral variant and skepticism of vaccines among conservatives made it impossible to declare full independence from Covid-19.
“Over the past year, we’ve lived through some of our darkest days,” Biden said at a White House party Sunday.
“Now I truly believe … we’re about to see our brightest future,” he added.
The success of GOP policymaking outside Washington is piling even more pressure on the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats to make the most of what might be a narrow window of power before the midterm elections next year to pass one of the most ambitious party programs in decades.
Biden is seeking quick action on his bipartisan infrastructure deal with Republicans — a promise kept to voters who bought into his vow to bridge partisan divides.
But the deal is fragile, since many Senate Republicans are balking at the complex choreography that will see it moved alongside a huge Democratic spending bill worth up to $6 trillion needed to buy progressive votes.
The second bill would include many measures defined by the White House as “human infrastructure,” including home health care for sick and elderly Americans, and it would likely be financed by a rise in corporate tax rates.
The bill has the potential to be one of the most transformative pieces of social legislation passed in years and could significantly tilt the balance of the economy toward less well-off Americans — a process started by Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue bill. With its practical and ideological impact the measure would be more than a match for the conservative policy engine whirring in the states. But first Biden has to pass it.
Abbott and DeSantis lead the charge
One question that will be answered over the next couple of years is whether the dive right by Republicans — which delights the party base — will further alienate suburban voters who deserted Trump in 2020. At the same time, if Biden can deliver on his agenda he might not only excite his core voters — whom Democrats badly need to show up en masse in the midterms — it might also validate his own appeal to centrist voters and even anti-Trump Republicans.
The enthusiasm with which Republicans are extending Trump’s political legacy is meanwhile an early indicator that whether the ex-President runs in 2024 or not, his political inheritance will again be on the ballot.
In Texas, for instance, Abbott is leading the charge among Republicans seeking to paint a picture of a nation in crisis, riddled by crime and plagued by a tide of undocumented migrants in a bid to wound the Biden presidency.
“Mr. President, things have changed so quickly and so dramatically under the Biden administration. It’s been amazing and disastrous,” Abbott told Trump last week when the twice-impeached ex-commander in chief visited Texas to accompany the governor on a trip to the US-Mexico border.
Abbott has called back the state legislature for a special session in a new bid to pass restrictive voting laws. Democrats initially managed to stall the bills by walking off the floor to deprive Republicans of a quorum needed to hold votes.
As he leads Texas in Trump’s image, Abbott has also vowed to build the border wall that the ex-President promised Mexico would pay for, and is soliciting private donations. He will likely fail to raise the billions of dollars needed but his plan is a sign of how electric the issue of immigration remains for GOP voters. In another building block of a potential GOP presidential primary campaign, Abbott made a huge show of signing a bill that allows holstered handguns to be carried in Texas without a permit. Texas is also among Republican-led states that have passed tough new limits on abortion — part of an apparent wider effort by the conservative movement to elevate the issue to a Supreme Court seen likely to water down abortion rights.
One-upmanship on the border
Abbott’s border play has not gone unnoticed by other potential GOP presidential primary rivals.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — a Trump favorite — sent a detachment of National Guard troops to a border that conservatives say is insufficiently defended by the Biden administration, using cash from Republican donors.
DeSantis grabbed his own headline by announcing last month that he was sending local and state law enforcement officers to Texas and Arizona, saying, “America’s border security crisis impacts every state and every American.”
He may have made the most progress of any potential 2024 presidential candidate not named Donald Trump in aligning himself with the issues that electrify the party.
From his position in Tallahassee, he emerged as a hero during the pandemic for conservatives who chafed against the masking and social distancing advice of federal health officials. By taking on the cruise industry, DeSantis made a stand against “vaccine passports” — a hot-button issue on the right.
But the Florida governor showed a deft touch in putting politics aside when Biden visited bereaved relatives of the victims of the collapsed condo building near Miami, potentially showing he could carve out more moderate appeal.
DeSantis is not just implementing policies that Trump might like. He also appears to be trying to move out of the shadow of the former President, who once regarded him as a protege — a potential cause of future tensions between the two.
The Florida governor, for example, recently signed a bill banning transgender athletes from competing in female sports. GOP strategists see the issue as one with appeal wider than their own grass roots as the midterm elections loom. He also gained kudos among voters who believe that Trump has been “canceled” by social media platforms.
In May, DeSantis signed a measure that would allow Floridians to sue Silicon Valley giants that they believe infringe their rights to freedom of speech. And any Big Tech company that “de-platforms any candidate for statewide office” will face fines of $250,000 per day. DeSantis also signed a measure that opponents say grievously curtails the right to demonstrate, as he aimed for a piece of Trump’s “law and order” constituency.
It is a record that makes DeSantis an emerging hero of the conservative movement — and a key player in the intensifying ideological battle that will help define Biden’s presidency and the fate of the next two national elections.