It’s safe to say most people were surprised by the outcome of November’s federal elections. But the surprises didn’t stop there.
At the state level, once-expected Democratic gains across the country didn’t materialize. Republicans held their own—and, in fact, gained more than they lost.
The GOP picked up the Kentucky House of Representatives and the Minnesota and Iowa senates, while winning enough new seats to achieve a tie in the liberal Connecticut Senate. They also took over governorships in Missouri and New Hampshire. Democrats, meanwhile, picked up the New Mexico House of Representatives, the Washington Senate, and both chambers in Nevada, as well as the governorship in North Carolina.
One big factor in the results was an unexpectedly large turnout by religious and social-issues voters.
“Many cultural conservatives were hunkered down and lamenting the next four years in Washington, D.C., but they didn’t despair and stay home,” says Paul Weber, president and CEO of the Family Policy Alliance, a public-policy partner of Focus on the Family. “They showed up, and more than 80 percent of evangelical voters came out for conservatives. That had a lot of down-ticket effects.”
Partisan results alone don’t tell the whole story, of course: Republican gains aren’t automatically synonymous with social-conservative gains. To flesh out the story, Citizen interviewed staffers with family-policy councils in several key states.
For years, the Iowa Senate was where social-conservative legislation born in the House went to die. Longtime Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal saw to that.
No longer—at least for Gronstal. In November, Democrats’ two-seat edge gave way to a nine-seat Republican majority. Among those ousted was Gronstal himself: The eight-term senator who’d been there since 1984 fell to Republican Dan Dawson, a special agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
“In the past, we’d always hit a road block in the Senate,” says Bob Vander Plaats, president of The FAMiLY Leader. “Anything involving life or school choice was stonewalled by Gronstal. Now it’s a completely new day at the Capitol.”
Pro-life and school choice advocates now holds both legislative chambers and the governorship, albeit with a new governor (Incumbent Terry Branstad, named ambassador to China by President Donald Trump, was succeeded by Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.) And Vander Plaats sees things looking up for family issues.
“We’re looking at passing more sanctity-of-humanlife legislation,” he says. “We’re looking at school choice. We’re looking at a religious-liberty bill basically reaffirming the First Amendment, recognizing that people have the right not just to worship within the four walls of their church, but to live out their beliefs. We think it’s got a great chance of passing.
“If life, religious liberty and education get addressed, we’ll be pretty happy.”
In Kentucky, the swing was even larger. The House of Representatives, which Democrats held by a 53-47 margin, now has a 64-36 Republican supermajority. Here, too, the GOP now holds both chambers and the governorship (Matt Bevin). And social conservatives already are seeing results.
In the first week of January, the legislature passed two long-stymied bills—one banning abortion after 20 weeks, another requiring that women seeking abortion first be shown an ultrasound of their child. They passed by prodigious margins, with many Democrats (more than half, in one case) voting with the Republicans. Bevin signed both bills into law.
Kent Ostrander, long-time president of The Family Foundation, is delighted. “For more than a decade, we’ve seen most substantive pro-life bills killed in committees,” he says. “This time, we got open and honest floor debates. It was refreshing.”
Now Ostrander wants to see if the new leadership will move on bills opposed by LGBT groups, such as measures upholding religious liberty and rights of conscience or protecting the privacy and safety of people in public restrooms and locker rooms.
“They’ve passed yesterday’s long-overdue measures, and we’re very glad,” Ostrander says. “Now we have to see if they’ll take on today’s issues.”
He’s encouraged, however, by most of the 24 new conservative legislators, and thinks they have a bright future as pro-family champions—so long as they remember where they came from/
“We know that more than half of the new members—maybe 6O percent—are very committed to the Lord and to our issues. We hope they keep that fire in this session and in years to come.”
NEW AND IMPROVED
New lawmakers—or old ones in new positions—are also encouraging pro-family forces in Minnesota, where Republicans took control of the Senate.
Key to the shift was a strategy of mobilizing socially conservative voters in Senate districts where a Republican represented them in the House, but a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party—the state’s uniquely named branch of the Democratic Party—held the Senate seat.
“Our core issues—life, marriage, family, religious freedom—were central to our efforts in districts we targeted,” says Minnesota Family Council CEO John Helmberger. “There were candidates in other districts we wanted to support, but they either weren’t solidly with us or weren’t willing to say so on the record. We’re principle-driven, not party-driven.”
MFC focused its efforts on seven Senate races, winning four, a key to an overall GOP net gain of six seats.
“Those were places where we had an audience that was sympathetic to us on our core issues—life, marriage and family, religious freedom,” Helmberger says.
“Literally overnight, we went from having a radically pro-abortion, pro-LGBT majority in our Senate to having a pro-life, pro-family majority with our long-time friend and MFC Family Champion Award winner”—Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa—”as the new majority leader.”
This likely won’t lead to immediate changes on social issues in a state deadlocked between a Republican-controlled legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. But Helmberger thinks that time will come.
“A few years ago, we set out to rebuild a foundation of godly leadership in this state, with the kind of Christ-centered men and women we knew our state needs,” he says. “The first fruit was in 2014, when we won a pro-life, pro-family majority in our House. This year was the next step. It isn’t the last.”
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
In Missouri, Joe Ortwerth has seen good times and hard times.
As a young state legislator in 1986, Ortwerth pioneered a law making Missouri the first state to levy health and safety standards on abortion facilities, requiring doctors there to have certain credentials and hospital-admitting privileges. Since 2009, however, Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration has been loath to enforce those regulations. And last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such laws in a case stemming from Texas.
“Missouri has a new governor, and that’s certainly welcome conservative news” for family advocates, says Ortwerth, now the executive director of the Missouri Family Policy Council, of former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, a Republican.
“We now have an administration that will be friendly toward ensuring abortion facilities comply with the laws we still have, such as informed consent and a 72- hour waiting period for abortion.”
And the changes aren’t just in the governor’s mansion. For the first time in state history, Republicans swept all the statewide elections as well as maintaining super-majorities in the General Assembly.
Among the newcomers: Attorney General Josh Hawley. Formerly employed by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Hawley worked on cases including Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, in which the U.S. Supreme Court sided with business owners who could not in good conscience comply with Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.
Count Ortwerth among those happy to have Hawley in office. “We have not just a friend, but someone who’s been a leader in legal strategies for pro-life and pro-family causes,” Ortwerth says. “For the first time in 24 years, we’ll have a pro-life attorney general—someone who will vigorously defend pro-life laws when they’re challenged in court.”
New Hampshire, too, has a new GOP governor, Chris Sununu. It’s unclear what that means, though he’s signaled support for potential pro-life legislation.
Much clearer is that the state now has Republican majorities in both chambers, so “we think we have a pretty good chance of getting some of that legislation to him,” says Cornerstone Action board member Shannon McGinley. “We’re cautiously optimistic. We’re looking to find common ground (with Sununu).””
Finding common ground in North Carolina, on the other hand, isn’t likely. In perhaps the fall’s biggest disappointment to cultural conservatives, incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory lost a razor-thin race to Attorney General Roy Cooper, conceding four weeks after Election Day when a recount showed he wouldn’t win.
The race hinged on a central issue: McCrory faced tremendous heat last year for signing HB 2,which provided that multiple-occupancy public restrooms and changing rooms are set aside for people based on the sex on their birth certificates, not their self-declared gender identity. Cooper refused to defend the law in court.
THE BALLOT MEASURES
While elections of office holders brought more pluses than minuses nationwide for the pro-family side, the reverse was true of referenda on particular issues. The worst setback came in Colorado, which legalized physician-assisted suicide by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
“The ads kept talking about ‘compassion’ at the end of life, without giving a truthful picture of what that looks like,” says Colorado Family Action Executive Director Debbie Chaves. “Now a doctor can write a prescription to kill a human being. We could easily see people classified by the financial or emotional burden they place on their families—or their insurance companies. That’s a place we never want society to go.”
Now Chaves—whose own father was given months to live at his cancer diagnosis, but lived another 17 years – is seeking to limit the harm. Among other measures, she’s looking at protecting terminally ill people from being coerced to kill themselves by family members or insurance companies.
“On the legislative front, we want to get every protection we can,” she says. “And on the cultural front, people of faith have an opportunity to define what true compassion is—how you walk alongside someone to live their life and finish with true dignity and respect.”
Also on Election Day, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, while Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota legalized its medical use. Family policy councils in those states are now trying to clean up the mess as best they can.
“The devil is in the details,” says Jerry Cox, president of Family Council in Arkansas. “Will we allow marijuana edibles? If so, will we allow candy, which appeals to children? There are so many questions.
“We’ll have to pass between 50 and l00 bills in addition to one big one addressing how these things are to be implemented. We’re in damage-control mode, and we will be for years to come.”
But state referenda brought some bright spots too.
Arizona voters, bucking the tide, rejected a recreational-marijuana measure which was leading polls by double digits less than two months before the election.
“Prop. 205 didn’t just decriminalize marijuana, it made smoking and growing it a statutory right, with all sorts of protections,” explains Center for Arizona Policy Communications Director Cindy Dahlgren.
“If the election had been six weeks sooner, the measure would have won by 300,000. Instead it lost by 67,000. It was a really bad measure, and we got the word out.”
Although Colorado voters legalized doctor-assisted suicide, they also decisively rejected a single-payer health-care proposal—in effect, a government takeover of the system which opponents believe would have put many people at risk. The measure lost by a 3-1 margin.
“This not only would have endangered the economy, but also individuals,” Chaves says. “There would have been a 21-person panel that would mete out medical care to people in the state. It was just a disaster waiting to happen.”
Finally, attempts to expand gambling were defeated in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Arkansas—the first two at the hands of voters, the last at the hands of the state Supreme Court, which ruled the measure’s wording was misleading. Only in Rhode Island was more gambling approved (a casino in the town of Tiverton).
THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE
Winning some and losing some comes with the territory for the men and women who step into the public-policy arena on a daily basis. But Weber gets enthusiastic when he talks about the people who take up that challenge—and the reinforcements that keep coming.
“We’ve begun training up the next generation to be, and we’re seeing some good promising leaders come to office as a result,” he says.
Weber has particular people in mind when he says that. Last summer, Family Policy Alliance conducted its first Statesmen Academy, a program for current and aspiring young legislators of faith that trains them in the art of effective politics. And the first class did their teachers proud.
“We saw 16 of them run for office this year, and 14 of them won—one by 36 votes,” Weber says. “Now they’ll work with their family policy councils to strengthen their states.
“It’s very exciting to see these results. We’re confident this is the way of the future.”
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.