Zooey Zephyr row spotlights rise of GOP far-right caucuses

Apr 28, 2023, 9:26 PM

FILE - Rep. Zooey Zephyr poses for a photo at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont., on April ...

FILE - Rep. Zooey Zephyr poses for a photo at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont., on April 26, 2023. The banishment of transgender lawmaker Zephyr from Montana's House floor has showcased the rising power of hardline conservatives who are leveraging divisive social issues to gain political influence. (AP Photo/Tommy Martino, File)

(AP Photo/Tommy Martino, File)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The banishment of transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephyr from Montana’s House floor has showcased the rising power of hard-line conservatives — organized under the banner of the State Freedom Caucus Network — who are currently leveraging divisive social issues to gain influence in 11 statehouses.

In Montana, they led the charge to enshrine a ban on gender-affirming care for minors that the governor signed Friday. In South Carolina, they slowed the budget process this year with failed amendments to punish universities with diversity programs. And in Wyoming, they tried to make certain library books “crimes of obscenity.”

Across the country with varying levels of success, the groups have followed the playbook of the House Freedom Caucus, an eight-year old alliance of GOP conservatives determined to pull Republicans in the U.S. Congress to the right.

After debuting on the second anniversary of successfully pushed GOP leaders to punish Zephyr, a Democrat, following her statements and actions in support of the transgender community.

The dispute brought Zephyr a national stage from which to advocate for transgender issues. Though she’s seized the moment and drawn support from the left, her elevated profile could work to the GOP’s advantage as Republicans try to paint Democrats as extremists heading into 2024, said University of Montana political analyst Robert Saldin. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a moderate Democrat and farmer, will be up for reelection in a race considered pivotal for control of the Senate.

“This is what the Freedom Caucus folks wanted,” said Saldin. “Now Zephyr is the second most well-known Democrat in Montana. To the extent that she’s the face of the party in Montana, that’s great for the Freedom Caucus.”

Zephyr’s punishment appears unprecedented in Montana. It comes after the state’s political landscape careened sharply Republican over the past 15 years, giving the GOP a two-thirds supermajority in the statehouse. That shift sidelined the thinning ranks of Republican moderates — and brought to the fore social issues once on the legislative fringe.

“They like to call us extremists, but we’re seeing the extremists on the left take front and center stage here,” said Montana Freedom Caucus chairwoman and state Sen. Theresa Manzella. “We’re getting behind the right issues, the issues that are dear to our hearts and those of our constituency.”

The caucus and its members also have repeatedly misgendered Zephyr by using the wrong pronouns to describe her. Manzella indicated that will continue.

Montana’s Republican House Speaker stopped recognizing Zephyr’s requests to speak on April 18 after she told colleagues they’d have blood on their hands if they restricted gender-affirming medical care. Days later, Zephyr was ousted from the floor on a party-line vote for the remainder of the session, accused of egging on boisterous demonstrators in the House gallery who had demanded she be allowed to speak.

State 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 passing laws banning gender-affirming care for minors and restricting the dissemination of pornography. The group now includes one-fifth of statehouse Republicans and Phalen said he expects it to grow with the addition of freshman lawmakers whose votes aligned with Freedom Caucus priorities and will thereby earn entry.

Phalen, like others in the caucus, described this week’s disruption on the House floor as “a riot or insurrection” — employing the same language that’s been used for the Jan. 6 siege by supporters of Donald Trump.

The State Freedom Caucus Network is the brainchild of Republican strategist Andy Roth and U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who in the lead-up to the 2020 election devised expanding the House Freedom Caucus model to the states.

The network uses House Freedom Caucus members to establish state-level affiliates, with congressmen including Biggs, U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana and U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina informally advising lawmakers in their states — hoping to create a pipeline of conservative lawmakers to higher office. Each backed Trump’s false statements about fraud in the 2020 election.

Since its founding, the national network has supported Republican primary candidates with modest funds for attack ads in at least one state, but it’s primary function has been to advise lawmakers on policy and strategy, Roth, the network’s president, said.

The state-level strategy mirrors that of the House Freedom Caucus, which extracting major concessions from leadership and coveted committee assignments.

“We’re trying to expose the hypocrisy that is going on in every state, especially in red states,” Roth said. “Liberal Republicans are going to the voters and saying, ‘I’m conservative. Elect me to the Statehouse,’ and then getting there and voting exactly opposite.”

Biggs, the former Freedom Caucus chair who challenged McCarthy, said freedom caucuses “create leverage points to try to advance a conservative cause.”

“Leverage is the key,” Biggs said. “When I have something you want, and you feel like you need to have it, then you can’t get it anywhere else.”

The majority of the 11 states with caucuses are controlled by Republican governors and Legislatures. Roth said that’s by design. The national network advises its state members to “be loud” against Republicans who have compromised on fiscal and cultural conservative principles, Roth said.

Freedom caucuses from Idaho to Pennsylvania have focused on abortion, crime and how race, gender and sexuality are navigated in schools and state offices. They’ve also frequently targeted what Roth called “corporate welfare” including tax incentives designed to lure Hollywood film productions to Wyoming.

The group’s rise in Montana follows the departure of lawmakers like former state Sen. Duane Ankney, who was among of a group of moderate Republicans that routinely negotiated with Democrats to break budget impasses. With Montana Republicans now in firm grip of power, Ankney said they no longer need Democratic agreement — or even to engage public debate.

“There’s people up there that have an agenda, and it doesn’t have to do with jobs and the economic health and well being of Montana,” said Ankney, who served four terms in the state House and Senate before leaving the Legislature in January.


Metz reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press reporters James Pollard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyoming, contributed to this story.

United States News

This image provided by the The Michigan Department of Natural Resources shows emergency personnel, ...

Associated Press

Michigan wildfire that’s burned more than 3 square miles was sparked by campfire on private land

GRAYLING TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan wildfire that’s burned more than 3 square miles (7.7 square km) amid hot, dry conditions was sparked by a campfire, the state Department of Natural Resources said Sunday. The Wilderness Trail Fire in Crawford County began about 1 p.m. Saturday near Staley Lake in Grayling Township and was […]

12 hours ago

Three search and rescue workers and a dog approach the site of a building collapse in Davenport, Io...

Associated Press

Missing man’s body recovered at Iowa apartment collapse site; two others still missing

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) — The body of one of three men who had been missing after the partial collapse of an apartment building in Davenport, Iowa, has been found, a city official confirmed Sunday. Branden Colvin Sr.’s body was recovered Saturday, city spokeswoman Sarah Ott said. Two other men — 51-year-old Ryan Hitchcock and 60-year-old […]

12 hours ago

A hiker sits on a ledge above Pueblo Bonito, the largest archeological site at the Chaco Culture Na...

Associated Press

Biden bans on oil and gas production on sacred site in New Mexico

Chaco Culture National Historical Park has been withdrawn from consideration for further oil and gas production for the next 20 years.

12 hours ago

Associated Press

Transgender adults in Florida `blindsided’ that new law also limits their access to health care

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Debate surrounding Florida’s new restrictions on gender-affirming care focused largely on transgender children. But a new law that Republican presidential candidate and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last month also made it difficult – even impossible – for many transgender adults to get treatment. Eli and Lucas, trans men who are a […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

Four dead in Missouri after car crosses center line, strikes motorcyclists

AURORA, Mo. (AP) — Four people died and seven others were seriously injured when a car crossed the center line of a Missouri highway and struck five motorcycles. The accident happened Saturday afternoon on Missouri Route 39 near the southwestern Missouri town of Aurora. The Missouri State Highway Patrol said a Toyota Corolla crossed the […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

7 shot, 1 fatally, in Chicago when gunfire erupts amid remembrance for man killed in car crash

CHICAGO (AP) — A 25-year-old woman was fatally shot and six other people were wounded early Sunday when gunfire erupted in Chicago during a remembrance for a man who died in a car crash, police said. A large group of people had gathered about 1 a.m. to mark four years since a man’s fatal crash […]

12 hours ago

Sponsored Articles



Here are the biggest tips to keep your AC bill low this summer

PHOENIX — In Arizona during the summer, having a working air conditioning unit is not just a pleasure, but a necessity. No one wants to walk from their sweltering car just to continue to be hot in their home. As the triple digits hit around the Valley and are here to stay, your AC bill […]


Desert Institute for Spine Care

Spinal fusion surgery has come a long way, despite misconceptions

As Dr. Justin Field of the Desert Institute for Spine Care explained, “we've come a long way over the last couple of decades.”



Why drug-free weight loss still matters

Wanting to lose weight is a common goal for many people as they progress throughout life, but choosing between a holistic approach or to take medicine can be a tough decision.

Zooey Zephyr row spotlights rise of GOP far-right caucuses