Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker lost his bid for reelection. His failed presidential run, his crooked financial deals, and his unpopular policies weakened Walker in the eyes of the electorate and finally took him down. And his fellow Republicans lost with him. In a high-turnout election that saw a record 2.7 million voters cast midterm ballots, Walker’s team was trounced. Every statewide Republican candidate was defeated: for attorney general, for secretary of state, for state treasurer, for lieutenant governor. And that was only the latest set of rough election results for Wisconsin Republicans.
Earlier in the year, in another high-turnout election, a state Supreme Court candidate backed by Walker and his allies won just 44 percent of the vote, losing what had been a conservative seat on the high court. On the same day, the governor’s attempt to eliminate the office of state treasurer was rejected by a 62-38 margin. And in special elections for state Senate seats, Republicans lost districts where they had not been defeated in decades.
The only thing that saved Wisconsin Republicans from a total wipeout in 2018 was gerrymandering. Despite the fact that 54 percent of November 6 voters preferred Democratic state legislative candidates, Republicans secured 63 of 99 Assembly seats—thanks to what Common Cause in Wisconsin refers to as “one of the most partisan gerrymanders of any state legislature in the nation in the last 50 years.” The results reaffirmed the truth of Wisconsin Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz’s assertion that his candidates were “competing on the most uneven playing field in the United States.”
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Walker’s chief legislative henchman, tried to spin the results as “a mandate” for his caucus. But his claim was undermined by his actions. Since the election results were announced, Vos has been working with Republicans who still control the state Senate to undermine the authority of the Democrats who won statewide and, most significantly, to reduce the prospects for future high-turnout elections.
The changes that they propose to enact this week, in a rushed lame-duck session of the legislature, are dramatic and dangerous. They have drawn loud protests from newspapers that usually back Republicans, good-government groups, and citizens who have rallied at the state Capitol. The newly elected governor of Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers, calls the scheme to take key policy making and appointment powers away from him and from newly elected Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul “another embarrassment for Wisconsin”—a historically progressive state that has seen its reputation badly damaged by the constant maneuvering of Walker and his fellow Republicans to undermine voting rights and consolidate power.
“The last election changed the state in a way that apparently the legislature has decided to not accept. They are putting their interests in front of the people of the state of Wisconsin,” says Evers, who has promised to do “take any steps possible to assure the people of Wisconsin that I will not invalidate those votes.”
Republicans are running scared, and what scares them is democracy. Walker, Vos, and Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald have come to fear the voters. They are afraid that their Republican Party can no longer win fair elections. They worry that their ideology, the conservative faith once advanced by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, can no longer compete in the battle of ideas.
In large measure, they are correct. As it has bent to the demands of Donald Trump, the Grand Old Party that was founded in Wisconsin in 1854 has fallen on hard times. Wisconsin wasn’t the only state where things went sour for the GOP. The November 6 election results saw Republicans lose control of the US House of Representatives—with the worst midterm losses since the Watergate era—as well as seven governorships and more than 300 state legislative seats nationwide. But the pattern in Wisconsin has been especially unsettling for the Republicans, and they know that redistricting following the 2020 Census will undo their gerrymandered advantages—if ongoing litigation does not upset the warped district lines even more quickly.
Walker is a political careerist who obsesses over election data. So, too, are Vos and Fitzgerald. They are savvy enough to recognize that their party is in crisis. They must recognize, as well, that the conservative movement that has sustained the GOP in recent decades has, with the surrender of principles and ideals to the service of Trumpism, struggled under the weight of its own hypocrisy.
Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos could take up the difficult work of remaking their party and their movement, adjusting approaches to respond to changing times and new challenges. But that would require these desperate men to put their faith in their own abilities, and the abilities of the candidates they support, to appeal to the voters in free and fair elections.
Unfortunately, in Wisconsin—and in other states where Democrats are on the rise, such as North Carolina and Michigan—Republicans have chosen a cruder course. They are exploiting their lingering power to undermine democracy itself.
Among other things, they are proposing to dramatically restrict early-voting procedures that have played a critical role in increasing voter turnout in Wisconsin. While communities in the state can now maintain early voting on a flexible six-week schedule that is designed to encourage high levels of voter participation, the GOP plan would shift to a far more restrictive two-week schedule.
And they’re not stopping there. The Republicans are also scheming to preserve conservative control of the state Supreme Court by changing 2020 election dates in order to avoid a high-turnout election when a court seat is chosen on April 7 of that year. Specifically, they propose to move the state’s presidential primaries—which are expected to draw high interest, especially, though not necessarily exclusively, from Democrats—from April 7 to March 10. Why? So that Governor Walker’s untested appointee to the court, conservative judicial activist Daniel Kelly, will have an easier time.
Wisconsin’s county clerks have warned that scheduling a new election in order to protect Kelly will cost taxpayers dearly—perhaps as much as $7 million—create confusion for voters, and lead to logistical nightmares for clerks and poll workers. This is all true. But the more serious issue is the signal such a change would send regarding respect for the will of the people. As newly elected Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes says, “people didn’t vote in record numbers just to have representatives from gerrymandered districts work to further subvert democracy.”
If Walker, Vos, and Fitzgerald get away with attacking the infrastructure of high-turnout elections in Wisconsin by restricting early voting and changing election dates, you can bet that Republicans in other states will embrace this darkly antidemocratic strategy.