It’s one of the most undersold potential flashpoints in the 2024 GOP presidential race: A growing number of limited-government conservatives are criticizing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other Republicans for going too far in using the heavy hand of government to combat so-called “woke” entities.Wp
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And in Wyoming, the tension between those two approaches has come to a head.
The nation’s least-populous state could be considered its most Republican. In both 2016 and 2020, it handed Donald Trump his largest margin of any of the 50 states, going for Trump by more than 43 points in each cycle. Each of its state legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans by over 90 percent.
But of late, the state House has effectively shelved a number of bills resembling proposals that have sailed to passage elsewhere, and that reflect the growing GOP anti-"woke" crusade:
A school-choice bill that would create a scholarship fund for students to attend private instead of public schools.
A bill modeled on Florida’s education bill, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics , which would ban the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in Kindergarten through third grade.
A bill that would ban state officials from contracting with businesses and investment funds that boycott fossil fuels or emphasize political or social-justice goals.
A bill called “Chloe’s Law" that would forbid doctors from providing hormone blockers and gender-affirming surgery to children.
All four have already passed in the state Senate. But along the way, they lost GOP votes — a significant number of them, in the case of the first three bills — and now the state House is holding them up.
A big reason why? Because the state House speaker says he believes in “local control” worries about the broader impact of state government dictating such issues. He has also suggested the bill are emanating from national groups and targeting issues that simply aren’t pervasive in Wyoming.
Speaker Albert Sommers (R) has used a maneuver on the school-choice and education proposals known as keeping a bill in his “drawer.” In the former case, he noted that a similar measure already failed in the state House’s education committee. And on the latter, Florida-like bill, he argued for a limited role for state government.
"Fundamentally, I believe in local control,” Sommers told the Cowboy State Daily. “I’ve always fought, regardless of what really the issue is, against taking authority away from local school boards, town councils, county commissions. And in my view that’s what this bill does.”
He argued that the bill was also unconstitutional, because legislation in Wyoming must be focused on one topic, and in addition to restricting instruction on certain subjects, it implements changes in how much control parents have over school boards. He suggested such proposals “do not come from Wyoming but instead from another state, or they are templates from a national organization.” And he echoed some conservatives in arguing that it was a solution in search of a problem. “This type of teaching is not happening in Wyoming schools,” he said.
On Chloe’s Law, Sommers angered some conservatives by sending the bill to the appropriations committee rather than the labor and health committee. While the bill was being considered, some Republican legislators warned the bill would undercut counseling and mental health care for transgender youth and could create problems with the state’s federally regulated health-insurance plans. The appropriations committee voted against the bill by a 5-2 margin, tagging it with a “do not pass” designation.
Sommers also sent the fossil-fuels bill to the appropriations committee, and GOP lawmakers expressed worry that the bill would reduce investment in the state and force out large corporations and financial institutions.
Such moves have earned significant criticism not just from some free-market and libertarian-oriented groups, but increasingly from his potential rivals for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination. Former vice president Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, former Maryland governor Larry Hogan and former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson have all argued that DeSantis and/or the GOP should be careful about going too far.
“The idea of going after [Disney’s] taxing authority — that was beyond the scope of what I as a conservative, a limited government Republican, would be prepared to do," Pence said last week.
“For others out there that think that the government should be penalizing your business because they disagree with you politically, that isn’t very conservative,” Sununu added this month. He has added that "if we’re trying to beat the Democrats at being big-government authoritarians, remember what’s going to happen.”
“DeSantis is always talking about he was not demanding that businesses do things, but he was telling the cruise lines what they had to do,” Hogan said last year, calling DeSantis’s moves on Disney “crazy."
Hutchinson also criticized DeSantis for his proposed changes to Disney’s special tax status, which have since been significantly watered down. Similarly, in 2021, Hutchinson took a relatively lonely stand in his state, against the legislature banning gender-affirming care for children.
“While in some instances the state must act to protect life, the state should not presume to jump into the middle of every medical, human and ethical issue,” he said at the time. “This would be — and is — a vast government overreach.”
Hutchinson’s veto was eventually and easily overridden by the state legislature. And both that and DeSantis’s rise in the GOP are certainly suggestive of which way the wind is blowing.
But as Wyoming shows — and the 2024 primary could demonstrate — that doesn’t mean the debate within the GOP about the scope of government is completely settled.