Zooey Zephyr Banishment spotlights the rise of far-right GOP caucuses
BILLS, Mont. (AP) — The banishment of transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from Montana’s House of Representatives has demonstrated the growing power of hard-line conservatives — organized under the banner of the State Freedom Caucus Network — who are currently using divisive social issues to exert influence in 11 Statehouses to win.
In Montana, they led the charge to enshrine a ban on sex-affirming childcare that the governor signed into law on Friday. In South Carolina they slowed the budget process this year with failed changes to penalize campuses with diversity programs. And in Wyoming, they tried to make certain library books “obscenity crimes.”
Across the country, groups have followed the playbook of the House Freedom Caucus, an eight-year-old alliance of GOP conservatives determined to sweep Republicans in Congress to the right, with varying degrees of success.
After making their debut on the second anniversary of the US Capitol siege on Jan. 6, the 21 members of the Montana Freedom Caucus have spent the past two weeks successfully urging GOP leaders to punish Zephyr, a Democrat, after she contradicted her statements and actions in support of the transgender community.
The dispute gave Zephyr a national stage to speak out on transgender issues. Though she has seized the moment and garnered support from the left, her elevated profile could work in the GOP’s favor if Republicans seek to portray Democrats as extremists heading into 2024, said University of Montana political analyst Robert balance US Senator Jon Tester, a moderate Democrat and farmer, will run for re-election in a race believed to be crucial for control of the Senate.
“That’s what the Freedom Caucus people wanted,” Saldin said. “Now Zephyr is the second best known Democrat in Montana. In that she’s the face of the party in Montana, that’s great for the Freedom Caucus.”
Zephyr’s punishment appears to be unprecedented in Montana. It comes after the state’s political landscape has become heavily Republican over the past 15 years, giving the GOP a two-thirds majority in the statehouse. That shift has marginalized the thinning ranks of Republican moderates — and pushed social issues to the fore once they were on the legislative fringes.
“They like to call us extremists, but we see that the extremists on the left are front and center here,” said Montana Freedom Caucus chair and Senator Theresa Manzella. “We are fighting for the right issues, the issues that are close to our hearts and our constituency.”
The Caucus and its members have also repeatedly misconstrued Zephyr by using the wrong pronouns to describe her. Manzella indicated that this will continue.
The Speaker of the Montana Republican House of Representatives stopped acknowledging Zephyr’s remarks on April 18 after telling her colleagues they would have blood on their hands if they cut back on gender-affirming medical care. Days later, a party-line vote forced Zephyr out of the chamber for the remainder of the session on charges that she had goaded boisterous protesters in the House gallery who had demanded that she be allowed to speak.
Rep. Bob Phalen, a Freedom Caucus member and Eastern Montana farmer, said the moves against Zephyr capped a session in which the caucus played a key role in passing legislation banning gender-affirming child care and proliferation limit pornography. The group now includes one-fifth of State House Republicans, and Phalen said he expects it to grow with the addition of new lawmakers whose votes align with Freedom Caucus priorities and gain entry as a result.
Phalen, like others in the caucus, described this week’s disturbance on the House floor as a “riot or riot” — using the same language used by Donald Trump supporters for the Jan. 6 siege.
The State Freedom Caucus Network is the brainchild of Republican strategist Andy Roth and Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, who mapped out expanding the House Freedom Caucus model to the states ahead of the 2020 election.
The network uses members of the House Freedom Caucus to create state-level affiliates, with congressmen like Biggs, US Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana and US Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina informally advising state legislators in hopes to create a pipeline of conservative lawmakers into higher office. Everyone supported Trump’s false statements about fraud in the 2020 election.
Since its inception, the national network has supported Republican lead candidates with modest funding for attack advertising in at least one state, but its primary function has been to advise lawmakers on policy and strategy, said Roth, the network’s president.
The strategy at the state level mirrors that of the House Freedom Caucus, which in January led the GOP rebellion against Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s candidacy for speaker, extracting key concessions from leadership and coveted committee assignments.
“We’re trying to expose the hypocrisy that’s going on in every state, especially the red states,” Roth said. “Liberal Republicans go to the voters and say, ‘I’m conservative. Vote me to the Statehouse, and then come over there and vote the exact opposite.”
Biggs, the former Freedom Caucus chairman who challenged McCarthy, said the Freedom Caucuses “create pressure points to try to advance a conservative cause.”
“Leverage is key,” Biggs said. “If I have something you want and you feel like you have to have it, there’s nowhere else you can get it.”
The majority of the 11 states with caucuses are controlled by Republican governors and legislatures. Roth said that was intentional. The national network advises its state members to be “loud” against Republicans who have compromised on fiscal and culturally conservative principles, Roth said.
Freedom rallies from Idaho to Pennsylvania have focused on abortion, crime, and the treatment of race, gender, and sexuality in schools and state offices. They have also frequently targeted what Roth called “corporate welfare,” including tax incentives aimed at attracting Hollywood film production to Wyoming.
The group’s rise in Montana follows the departure of lawmakers like former Senator Duane Ankney, who was part of a group of moderate Republicans who routinely negotiated with Democrats to break fiscal impasses. With Montana’s Republicans now firmly in power, Ankney said they no longer need a Democratic agreement — or even a public debate.
“There are people up there who have an agenda, and it has nothing to do with jobs and the economic health and welfare of Montana,” said Ankney, who served four terms in the House and Senate before leaving the Legislature in January left .
Metz reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press reporters James Pollard of Columbia, South Carolina and Mead Gruver of Cheyenne, Wyoming contributed to this story.