Elections have consequences.
That adage, which has long been part of the bedrock of our democracy, doesn’t appear to be the case anymore – at least in Wisconsin.
Earlier this week, the Republican-held state legislature passed a series of measures aimed at tying the hands of the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general. Among them, from CNN’s report:
“Wisconsin is now expected to reduce its number of early voting days, restrict gubernatorial influence over a powerful economic agency [Democratic Gov-elect Tony] Evers sought to disband, and require legislative backing for certain decisions traditionally made by the attorney general and governor – a move that would likely block [Democratic Attorney General-Elect John] Kaul from pulling the state out of a federal lawsuit against Obamacare. The legislature will also be able to hire its own lawyers to defend state law in court, diminishing the attorney general’s power.”
Make no mistake about what’s happening here: Republicans in Wisconsin are trying to undo the results of the 2018 election. They don’t like the idea of Democrats being given the same power over the state they enjoyed when they won the governorship and the attorney general’s office so they are acting in a lame-duck session to take away those powers.
It’s literally the opposite of the democratic process.
That this is happening in Wisconsin is not at all surprising. Despite its Midwestern reputation, there is no state that has become more polarized along partisan lines over the past decade than the Badger State.
It all began with the election of Gov. Scott Walker, the man Evers beat last month, in 2010. A month into Walker’s first term, he moved to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions. The national labor movement immediately mobilized, casting the fight over Act 10 as the defining political skirmish for this generation of unions members. Protesters mobbed the Wisconsin state capitol in an attempt to keep the legislation from passing through the GOP-controlled chamber. Democratic state senators decamped to Illinois to try to keep the bill from going through. Despite all of that, Act 10 became law.
The political consequences were vast. Recall efforts were launched against Walker and the Republican state senators who voted for the bill. Walker, against all odds, won the recall election – which had become a sort of pre-presidential test for both parties in advance of the 2012 election. (More than $80 million was spent on the contest.)
Walker won, again, narrowly in 2014 – as the deep partisan riff in the state only worsened. His defeat in 2018 in a quest for a third term (and in his fourth race in eight years) was a massive victory for national Democrats who had grown to loathe the Wisconsin governor not the least of which for his seeming invincibility to their electoral challenges. (Walker, in the middle of his second term, ran a disastrous – but mercifully short – campaign for president.)
Add it all up and you get this: There is zero love lost between Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin. And in that sort of climate, anything goes.
Said state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) about his side’s move: “I want people to understand that, that there’s going to be a divide between the legislative and executive branch.”
Which, said another way, goes like this: I want people to know the state legislature is controlled by Republicans, and the governor’s mansion ain’t. (Wisconsin Republicans will continue to control the state Senate and state House in 2019.)
The other reason Wisconsin Republicans are doing this is because they believe that, ultimately, voters won’t really care. That changing rules of who has marginally more power over various functions of the state government, they clearly believe, isn’t the sort of stuff that will blow up in their faces. Or that even if it does, it might be worth making the changes anyway – given the policy stakes.
Unfortunately, there’s both some precedent for this move and some suggestion that the supposition that voters won’t care much may be right. Following their loss in the governor’s race in the 2016 election, North Carolina statehouse Republicans pushed through legislative measures to curtail the incoming Democratic governor’s power. Defeated Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed the measure on his way out of office. And Republicans still control the North Carolina House and Senate. No harm, big foul.
Politics is a copycat game. If something works in one race or one state, you can be sure that someone else in another race or another state will try it. What Republicans are doing in Wisconsin then isn’t the final instance of this end-run of democracy. It’s likely a progenitor of many more attempts like it to come.
Which is bad. If you like democracy, that is.