Four days before the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, voters in western Wisconsin sent a devastating message to the president’s party. In a State Senate district that Trump won by a landslide in 2016, voters replaced a conservative Republican with a progressive Democrat. The district had been electing Republicans for the better part of two decades, and their nominee, Adam Jarchow, was a prominent member of the State House who had won previous elections in parts of the district. Republicans poured money into the contest. But in the end, it wasn’t even close. St. Croix County medical examiner Patty Schachtner won some 55 percent of the vote, swinging the district to the Democrats by almost 18 points.
It was a stunning setback for Governor Scott Walker and a state Republican Party that had been on a winning streak since the “GOP wave” election of 2010. So stunning, in fact, that Walker tweeted: “Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake-up call for Republicans in Wisconsin.” With the “Trump factor” damaging the GOP brand across the country, and with Walker’s own reelection prospects looking increasingly uncertain, the last thing he needed was this bad news. If Democrats could win in such a seemingly red district, there was no telling where else they could triumph. Two other Republican-held legislative seats were open in Wisconsin; losing either of them would confirm that the Republicans were vulnerable and strengthen the hand of Democrats in the Legislature and on the fall campaign trail.
Luckily for Walker, he had that problem covered. The governor had already announced that he would not call special elections to fill those vacancies. That was a good thing for Walker and his party—but it was bad for representative democracy, as the 229,904 people living in those districts will go unrepresented for almost a full year.
Governors in half of all states are empowered to call special elections to fill vacant state legislative seats. A number of them also have the power to call special elections to fill vacant US Senate seats, and all of them are supposed to call special elections to fill vacant seats in the US House. Historically, this awesome authority has been considered a duty that is best exercised quickly and without partisan calculation. But that’s not how the system works these days. Governors like Walker are leaving legislative seats open for months longer than need be—and, in many cases, for as much as a year. In Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder is leaving a US House seat in a heavily Democratic district open for almost the entire second session of the 115th Congress. In Alabama, Republicans are busy rewriting election laws so that there will never be another special election like the one in December that handed Democrat Doug Jones the Senate seat once held by Jeff Sessions.
“If you’re a Republican governor, what do you do when you can’t seem to win special elections?” asks Carolyn Fiddler, who follows legislative races with the Statehouse Action project. “You stop having them, of course!”