Campaigns & Elections

Freedom Caucuses push for conservative state laws, but getting attention is their big success

Eleven states have formal chapters of the State Freedom Caucus Network, which aims to push Republicans to the right.

Pennsylvania Rep. Dawn Keefer

Pennsylvania Rep. Dawn Keefer Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

By Elaine S. Povich

When a Republican colleague threatened to read aloud from a 2-foot stack of books – including a biblical guide to leadership and a tome by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist – to protest inaction on his bills last week, Missouri state Sen. Rick Brattin quickly took up the cause.

Seizing on a chance to hijack the planned schedule, Brattin spoke for about 45 minutes, accusing the leaders of his own Republican Party of ignoring some bills and making things “really frustrating” for ultra-conservative members. He often waved his arms for emphasis, as other senators sat flipping through papers, waiting for the session to begin.

“It leads to things coming to a halt in this chamber,” he said. “I wish we would do things people actually want.”

Brattin is chair of Missouri’s Freedom Caucus, a group of Republican legislators who aim to push their party further to the right on issues such as immigration, voting access and transgender restrictions.

But some other Republicans say members of the Freedom Caucus gum up the legislative works and are more interested in publicity and grandstanding than conservative policymaking. Frustrated by such tactics, Missouri Senate leaders stripped four Freedom Caucus senators, including Brattin, of their chairmanships and parking places earlier this year.

“It’s hard to do stuff even when everybody’s acting in good faith,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Caleb Rowden, a Republican. Rowden derided the Freedom Caucus members as “swamp creatures who all too often remind me more of my children than my colleagues.” He added that last week’s delay was a mix-up and that the bills at issue would come to the floor.

“They did that repeatedly, day after day for two weeks, basically,” Rowden said in an interview last week at his spacious desk in his high-ceilinged office across the hall from the Senate. “It became necessary for us to do something that would indicate that we’re not going to let four guys run the place; it’s just not how this works.”

The Missouri Freedom Caucus claims at least six senators and is approaching a dozen House members. There are similar chapters in 10 other states so far that are officially part of the State Freedom Caucus Network, an outgrowth of the congressional group that has held up deals and helped oust speakers in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The state chapters are proposing conservative legislation and slowing measures they don’t like, even bills that were once considered routine and noncontroversial. And its members in many states, including Missouri, are running for higher office. But regardless of whether they succeed on legislation, they excel at getting publicity and drawing attention to themselves.

That is by design, Andrew Roth, president of the Washington, D.C.-based network, told Stateline.

“What we try to do is push conservative policy,” he said. “If we win, we win. If we lose, we’re exposing the fake Republicans for who they are. They will then have to answer to their constituents. We feel like we win either way.”

The national organization provides the state caucuses with support and funding. That includes the salary of each state director, none of whom is a legislator, according to Roth.

The state directors pay attention to what’s going on in state government even when the legislatures are not in session and the mostly part-time lawmakers are home tending to other business. They can alert the more than 160 members to issues and either get them to call a news conference or draft legislation to be considered in the next session to highlight their priorities.

“What we try to do is push conservative policy. If we win, we win. If we lose, we’re exposing the fake Republicans for who they are. … We feel like we win either way.” – Andrew Roth, president of the State Freedom Caucus Network

Tim Jones, a former Missouri House speaker who is now director of the state’s Freedom Caucus, said in an interview that since the parking spaces kerfuffle, the caucus has picked up five new members in the House. “It’s not meant to be a publicity stunt for anybody,” he insisted. “It’s supposed to be the conservative North Star of the General Assembly.”

Sen. Bill Eigel, a Missouri caucus member who is running for governor, said taking his parking spot “is kind of the height of pettiness,” but that he won’t be deterred.

“They are trying to silence us, just like they are trying to silence Donald Trump,” Eigel said in an interview. “Unfortunately for them, it’s not going to work. We’re going to continue to be bold.”

Eigel said he parks “down by the river” now, a few blocks away from the underground Capitol garage. His wife is happy that the extra walk means he’s getting in a few more steps each day, he quipped.

Pushing to the right

Like most other Republicans, Freedom Caucus members across states have championed school vouchers, pushed to send state troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to pursue migrants crossing into the country illegally, and opposed large state budgets and transgender medical care for minors.

But the Freedom Caucuses formed because some Republicans saw the rest of their party as not conservative enough. That has led to intraparty conflict in many GOP-dominated state capitols.

In Missouri, for example, the Senate passed a bill that would make it harder to amend the state constitution, if voters approve the measure, after leaders stripped a provision backed by the Freedom Caucus to ban non-citizens from voting. The Missouri Constitution already restricts voting only to citizens, but Freedom Caucus members argued the ban could be made even more explicit. Democrats disagreed and staged a filibuster that tied up the Senate; Republican leaders eventually agreed to take the provisions out, drawing the Freedom Caucus's ire.

Eigel would like the House to put the tougher provisions back in. Still, he claims credit for the Senate victory. “If the Freedom Caucus doesn’t stand up and cause a ruckus, the (ballot) initiative petition doesn’t move,” he said.

In Idaho, Republican leaders removed some Freedom Caucus members from committee leadership late last year. And in South Carolina, some Freedom Caucusers who refused to sign a loyalty oath pledging not to campaign against other Republican members, which is against party rules, were dumped from the House Republican caucus.

Matthew Green, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America who has studied the state Freedom Caucuses extensively, said in an interview that the state caucuses are “arguably more important than the U.S. House Freedom Caucus for policymaking.”

In a forthcoming paper, Green found that state legislative conservative caucuses – precursors of the current Freedom Caucuses – began to form as early as 2017, driven by lawmakers who found the GOP in their states insufficiently conservative.

But since 2021, the caucuses have formed at the behest of the national State Freedom Caucus Network, “illustrating how national interest groups and elected officials can contribute to state-level polarization,” he said. His study also found that lawmakers who lack power and influence are more likely to join the caucuses.

These caucuses, Green said, have been able to “move (the) party’s agenda further rightward, especially if the caucus constitutes a sizable proportion of the party.”

Delaying tactics can force Republican leaders to act on some issues, he said. “Seems like if the Freedom Caucus is disruptive and confrontational, they can win battles.”

Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, said the Freedom Caucus members in Missouri take advantage of unlimited debate to slow the legislature down “to a snail’s pace. Given the rules … it is relatively easy for them to gum up the process when they are unhappy with the way things are going,” he wrote in an email. That means even bills with broad GOP support have not made it all the way through the process, he wrote.

The animosity is not restricted to Missouri. In South Carolina, Green said, there’s “basically a civil war” going on in the supermajority Republican Party.

Members of the South Carolina Freedom Caucus refused to pledge not to fund challengers to GOP incumbents; that flouted a 2006 law that prohibited “special interest” caucuses from raising money and becoming otherwise involved in political campaigns. Only major caucuses organized by political party, race, ethnicity or gender – the Democratic, Republican, Black and Women’s caucuses – were allowed political operations. The ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus argued that was unfair in a suit against the legislature’s Ethics Committee. Last year, a federal judge agreed.

Rep. RJ May, one of the leaders of the South Carolina Freedom Caucus, said that the law was a way to “sign away our First Amendment rights. The establishment attempted to weaponize the rules,” he told Stateline.

May said that one of the reasons the Freedom Caucus formed in South Carolina is that the majority Republicans don’t “follow the party platform” and are too willing to compromise. The push gained steam, he said, when GOP legislative leaders began to only allow floor amendments from leadership, not rank-and-file lawmakers.

“People in South Carolina are sick and tired of leaders saying one thing at home and doing something different in Columbia. They say they are for reducing the size of government, but they vote for budget after budget that increases the number of agencies.”

May said his caucus has had some victories, such as championing a bill that passed the House to ban gender-affirming care for minors. (The bill is awaiting action in the Senate.) Caucus members also claim credit for reducing the state’s spending bill, though many of its members’ amendments were rejected, such as a move to give grants to churches and nonprofits to bolster the foster care system.

May echoed leaders in Missouri and elsewhere by saying that passing a bill is not necessarily the goal. “We have the effect of moving the body to the right,” he said.

House Speaker Murrell Smith’s staff did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did he comment for local media stories about the caucus.

‘The farm team’

Most of the Freedom Caucuses formed in states with Republican supermajorities. An exception is Pennsylvania, where the governor is a Democrat and Democrats control the House, while Republicans control the Senate.

The Freedom Caucus there has filed a lawsuit accusing Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Gov. Josh Shapiro, of unconstitutionally wresting power from the legislature over expanding access to elections in the state. Just last week, a federal judge dismissed the suit.

Pennsylvania Rep. Dawn Keefer, the Republican Freedom Caucus chair, who is running for the state Senate, had no immediate comment on the ruling to local media. Nor would she comment for this story.

In Arizona, Freedom Caucus members, led by chair Sen. Jake Hoffman, spearheaded a drive that resulted in the state Board of Education delaying until next year a proposed new handbook governing how parents use state-funded educational savings accounts to send their kids to private schools. The new handbook was designed to tighten the rules for using the accounts.

Hoffman said parents had not been given sufficient input. The new rules would have restricted the use of the funds for summer programs and required more updates for use of the money for students with disabilities. He called for a “robust stakeholder working group” to give input on the rule changes. The Board of Education maintained it had consulted parents and other interested parties. Nonetheless, it caved after concerns from families and Freedom Caucus members.

Holding news conferences, filing lawsuits – it’s all part of the State Freedom Caucus Network playbook, according to its director, Roth.

“Our members consider themselves the farm team of the House Freedom Caucus,” he said. “We also provide them communications support, legal support and get them connected with legal groups to help them file lawsuits.”

Back in Missouri, roiling the entrenched GOP leadership is exactly what Freedom Caucus members are doing, Eigel said.

“We’re shaking the status quo just by going through a lot of bills that are brought to the floor and asking a lot of questions that can frustrate folks that are expecting a much easier route to get their special interest priorities to the legislative chamber,” he said just before last week’s Senate session that featured Britton’s delay tactics. “I suspect that if you are watching today, you’re going to see a lot of questions.”

And there were.

Elaine S. Povich covers education and consumer affairs for Stateline – part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.