The Republicans’ Marie Antoinette moment

How gerrymandering, Donald Trump and the pandemic led the GOP to overplay its hand

Portrait of Marie Antoinette
Portrait of Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens (Photo from Wikimedia Commons public domain

As the November election approaches, there is reason to believe the Republicans have gone too far.

That’s hard to imagine, I know, in the era of Donald Trump.

It shakes your faith in democracy when the President of the United States retweets racist rants and promotes his own cockamamie medical theories — prompting the makers of Lysol to issue a disclaimer:  “Under no circumstances should our products be administered into the human body through injections, ingestion or any other route.” 

When have we ever seen a government this bad?

Our political leaders have abandoned even the pretense that they want to protect the public from harm. Quite the opposite, in fact. Here in Wisconsin — with our the pandemic election and the overthrow of Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide Safer at Home order – the message to the public from Republican leaders is: Drop dead.

And yet, somehow, Trump’s defeat in November is not a slam dunk. And under our gerrymandered maps Republican control of the Legislature looks impossible to break.

In the blue wave election of 2018, Republicans increased their majority in the state Senate from 18-15 to 19-14. In the Assembly, Democrats are down by 13 seats. State Republicans are only four seats away from a veto-proof majority in both houses — their goal for the 2020 election, which would finally allow them to get that pesky governor out of the way.

The rigged political map has made Republicans so confident they’re willing to go all in on the “reopen the state and let people die” message for 2020, along with Trump, whose political instincts will always be to stoke outrage and conflict and fire up his angry base.

But this may be the GOP’s Marie Antoinette moment.

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As Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) puts it, “it’s really a deadly political game to politicize the reaction to the pandemic.” As Goyke sees it, the Republicans scored a short-term political victory when they succeeded in overturning Safer at Home. “But there are going to be long-term negative consequences for the state.”

In the next election, the Republicans’ biggest vulnerability is in the suburbs, where their power is diminishing.

Craig Gilbert, the Washington bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, observed after the April 7 Supreme Court election that the so-called WOW counties around Milwaukee, (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) used to be “the state’s most potent and pivotal voting bloc.” The WOW counties propelled former Gov. Scott Walker’s election, recall victory, and re-election. And conservative Supreme Court Justices David Prosser won big there nine years ago — by 51 (Washington), 48 (Waukesha) and 43 (Ozaukee) points, Gilbert points out.  

But, Gilbert writes, “the April 7 court race, won by liberal candidate Jill Karofsky, is the latest sign of cracks in the ‘red’ suburban wall outside Milwaukee.”

On April 7, conservative Justice Daniel Kelly won Ozaukee County by just 12 points — down from the 25-point margin won by conservative court candidate Brian Hagedorn in 2019. And in both Waukesha and Washington, Kelly did 14 points worse than Hagedorn.

In Wisconsin, as in other states, suburban areas have been shifting from from solid red to pink, purple and blue. And suburban voters are not that turned on by Trump.

Suburban moms and dads are not “as enraged and electrified by stay-at-home” as the hard-core Trump voters who turn out to reopen rallies, says Goyke. “They don’t want their kids to get sick.”

“The Republicans are leaving a very soft middle, as Trump leans into his base,” he adds.

That shifting politics is exacerbated by a Republican overconfidence that comes from being elected in a district so gerrymandered it almost doesn’t matter what you say, because you’ve never faced a real political threat.

“Gerrymandering is a double-edged sword,” Goyke says. For Democrats and progressives in Wisconsin, it’s discouraging because it seems like the system is so rigged there is no way to make change. But for the gerrymandered majority it can also create a dangerous tendency to overplay your hand.

That might be what we are seeing with the Republican response to the pandemic.

Evers — like other Democratic governors who have passed stay-at-home orders to try to keep people safe — remains popular. Polls show that people generally agree that he has done a good job keeping them safe.

“People think that it was the right thing to do at the time. It worked. It saved lives. I’ll take that message all day long,” says Goyke.

State Republicans, on the other hand, appear to be utterly unconcerned about what happens to people now that they’ve done away with Evers’ statewide plan.

“Did they really pay attention to what was happening to people who were hospitalized and dying?” Goyke asks. “I don’t know that they thought it through.”

We don’t know what will happen next with COVID-19 in Wisconsin, now that there is no statewide order. But one thing is certain, it won’t just “disappear” as Trump predicted at the beginning of the pandemic.

The problem is certain to get worse — perhaps a lot worse by next fall.

Goyke thinks Republicans are rolling the dice.

This isn’t the first time Republican legislative leaders have destroyed good public policy to enhance their own power.

Goyke was part of a bipartisan group including Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and former Gov. Tommy Thompson that created a plan to reduce mass incarceration of African Americans — a moral stain on our state — and to create a more enlightened criminal justice system. All of that work was thrown out when Republican leaders determined that it would be handing Evers a victory if the plan saw the light of day.

Instead, we got a retrograde “tougher on crime” package of bills, pushed through by Republicans who used racially coded language about “thugs” in Milwaukee, with no Democratic support.

That kind of story is what burns out Democrats, and anyone who cares about sane, forward-looking public policy.

“It’s exhausting working for months with these people, only to have it taken away from your fingertips,” Goyke acknowledges.

Still, he is surprisingly upbeat.

At least Evers vetoed the most controversial tougher-on-crime bills, he points out.

Goyke’s lowest moment, he says, came in 2014, after Walker was re-elected and the Republicans took full advantage of their 2011 gerrymandered maps to seize control of the Legislature.

This year he sees races where Democrats are likely to pick up seats, especially in the suburbs, where a raft of women candidates represent the changing demographics of the places where they live.

He reels off examples. Kriss Marion in the 51st Assembly District, on the western edge of Dane County, ran for State Senate and lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Howard Marklein in a hotly contested and extremely expensive race in the toss-up district in 2018. She won 49.6% of the vote in the assembly district where she is now challenging Republican Rep. Todd Novak.

In suburban Green Bay, there is Kathy Hinkfuss, former CEO of the Greater Green Bay YWCA, running in the 4th district, on one side of the city, and on the other side, in the 88th district, there’s OB-GYN Kristin Lyerly.

In the North Shore suburbs of Milwaukee, Deb Andraca of Whitefish Bay, head of Moms Demand Action, is running against Jim Ott, calling out Ott for refusing to support background checks and extreme-risk protection orders, and slamming the Republican leadership for refusing to meet in special session to do something about gun violence.

Next door, in the 24th Assembly District, Emily Seigrist, a nurse, mom and veteran, is running on affordable health care and strong public schools.

The 13th Assembly District, which encompasses half of Wauwatosa and Brookfield, two strong women are running in an area that gave a Democratic candidate 48.5% of the vote in 2018.

“There are a lot more Democrats in Brookfield than we thought,” says Goyke. “And Republican support is softer than they know.”

These races and more around the state will probably not flip all 13 seats the Democrats would need to take control of the Assembly. But they could be part of a building momentum for a government that is more responsive to common sense and the public interest.

“I wish you could see the expressions on some of my Repoublican colleagues’ faces” who had more competitive races than they expected in 2018, Goyke says. 

There could be a few more of those looks in 2020.

Correction: an earlier version of this article contained errors in the spelling of Kriss Marion’s name and the details of her 2018 senate race. It was updated at 9:15 on May 27.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.