Commentary

Five signs of hope in Wisconsin’s dreary political landscape

Gerrymandering, elections and the battle ahead

April 20, 2022 7:00 am
WIsconsin State Capitol with yellow and orange tulips in bloom near Lady Forward

Spring at the Capitol by Josh Puetz CC BY-NC 2.0

The Wisconsin landscape has been looking pretty bleak lately, and not just because of the late April snow. The Supreme Court’s late Friday decision to reverse course, approving the voting map drawn by Republican legislators it had previously rejected, creates an even bigger gerrymander than our already heavily lopsided map, locking in large Republican majorities in the state Legislature for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, Republican politics are getting more toxic by the minute. April’s nonpartisan elections featured campaigns so divisive that the school board president in Eau Claire received death threats and other school board members stepped down, unwilling to keep serving their communities after being targeted for attacks of the same type Republicans stirred up against local elections officials.

The Big Lie contingent has taken over the state Republican Party, with party leaders who used to know better declaring there was “widespread fraud” in the 2020 election, and competing to outdo each other by cozying up to conspiracy theorists.

Tommy Thompson — the revered relic of a kinder, gentler era in Republican politics — announced on Monday that he won’t run for governor again after all, at age 80. Tommy’s bipartisan boosterism for Wisconsin doesn’t fit with the current Republican political brand. He leaves a slate of extreme GOP candidates focused on bringing Texas-style abortion bounty-hunters to Wisconsin  and stamping out school curriculum that covers the historical legacy of racism.

But don’t despair. If April is the cruelest month, there are still several good reasons to feel hopeful this spring:

  • April’s nonpartisan local elections did not signal the “red wave” Republicans were hoping for.

Despite a tidal wave of money that swamped the formerly sleepy nonpartisan races for school boards and city councils around the state, the results were about what you would expect. Conservative candidates backed by the Republicans won in Republican areas like Waukesha, while candidates with Democratic support won in many areas of the state where the aggressive attacks on incumbents by anti-mask, anti-anti-racist-curriculum candidates backfired.

In Beloit, a particularly nasty, personal campaign against the school board president, Megan Miller, failed, despite an infusion of more than $11,000 from a rightwing dark money group and the involvement of Beloit billionaire and major GOP donor Diane Hendricks.

  • Participation and voter interest in nonpartisan spring elections was up.

The most notable thing about the April elections, besides the big spending from outside groups and the divisive, national political themes that infected these formerly nonpartisan races, was turnout.

According to analysis by the state Democratic Party, which got heavily involved in competitive races in April, the total number of voters this year was up 80% — from 506,000 to 940,000 — compared to 2014, the last spring election in which there was no statewide race.

“One of the big takeaways is that it looks like we’re in a high turnout moment,” says Ben Wikler, the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Even though overall turnout in spring elections is low, in areas with competitive races, for 2022, “It’s very high on both sides,” he says. “And there are a whole lot of races that came down to a handful of  votes.”

“It’s just looking very Wisconsiny,” Wikler concludes. “High turnout on both sides, tons of  investment on both sides and a highly polarized election.” 

But is that good news? The politicization of nonpartisan races doesn’t seem like a positive development. And much of the money and energy is coming from a nationally coordinated rightwing rebellion against public officials who dared to support mask-wearing during the pandemic or who were involved in the administration of an election the Republicans have falsely claimed was stolen from Trump. 

But the peasants-with-pitchforks crowd didn’t account for all the turnout. When the results were all in, Wikler says, “There’s no evidence from the spring that that kind of very divisive attacks Republicans were using about honesty in education about race in our country or protecting transgender kids or any of those arguments made headway with swing voters or Democrats.”

Sure a lot of the school board candidates endorsed by former Republican Lt. Gov. and current gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch won. But they were almost all communities that voted for Trump.

“Where people were well organized, didn’t take the bait and stayed above the political fray they had a big advantage over the rightwingers,” says Heather DuBois Bourenane of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, which supported pro-public-school candidates all over the state. “This was true in the blue-leaning districts, but also in places like Tomahawk, Lake Mills, Waterloo,” she adds. “The places where the rightwing candidates who ran as a slate were very well organized and well funded won were all very conservative communities already or place that were purple-leaning-red — Waukesha, Manitowoc.”

  • The way Republicans are doubling down on extremism won’t hurt legislative candidates in super-gerrymandered districts, but it’s bad news for Republican candidates who need to win statewide.

The nuttiness on the right is a liability for GOP candidates for governor and senator, where the GOP’s divisive partisanship is turning off suburban voters, as Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2020, after the “red wall” around the suburbs of Milwaukee began to crack. The age of Trump, Gilbert reported, ushered in “a growing gap between blue-collar voters and college-educated suburbanites.”

Gerrymandering exacerbates this phenomenon by making red districts redder, Wikler points out. “It’s a way of making sure that Republicans are only worried about primary challenges from the right, which helps them help individual legislators protect their career but actually hurts Republicans on the statewide level because it keeps jamming the party further into extreme positions that hurt them in the statewide election.”

That’s bad news for the current crop of GOP gubernatorial candidates, and good news for Gov. Tony Evers and whichever Democrat challenges U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. 

  • More good news: Even though the GOP produced an even more gerrymandered map for 2022, that map doesn’t mean Republicans will win a veto-proof majority in the Legislature

According to a Marquette University analysis, in an election where 50% of Wisconsinites voted for Democrats and 50% voted for Republicans, Republicans would be expected to win 23 out of 33 Senate seats under the new map, and 63 out of 99 Assembly seats. That’s three seats short of a two-thirds, veto-proof majority in the state Assembly (It takes two-thirds majorities in both houses to override a veto).

Of course, results in statewide elections may vary depending on turnout. 

“I would say that the elections this year will matter for this reason,” says Sachin Chheda of the Fair Elections Project. “A veto-proof majority is possible — maybe even likely — but not assured and a small number of competitive races will determine whether that is what happens.” 

Wikler sounds optimistic. “If you look at the districts that they would need to win in order to get a veto-proof majority, those haven’t actually changed,” he says. 

The new map moves some districts that have been marginally competitive into solid Republican territory, “but they’re still several seats short of being able to get a supermajority.” he adds.

To recap, after the April re-gerrymander, Democrats are no worse off in the high profile statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and U.S. Senate this year. And the Republicans, while likely to consolidate their hold on the Legislature, probably won’t gain enough seats to override a Democratic governor’s veto. 

So 2022 is likely to yield the same result we’ve grown accustomed to — a divided government with a standoff between a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor.

  • The new gerrymandered map, and the rightwing extremism it helps foster, might not last

For anyone who yearns for a return to civil, reasonable political discourse and a government that can get basic things done like funding our schools, protecting jobs, maintaining infrastructure, and keeping toxic chemicals out of our drinking water, one key to a better future is the detoxification of politics.

The way we get there is by getting out from under our gerrymandered voting map, which gives candidates no incentive to listen to anyone but their ardent base, hence making common sense solutions to basic problems far less important than grandstanding on red meat topics like critical race theory. The good news here is that, while the GOP super gerrymander will remain in place for the 2022 election, there is reason to believe it might be overturned in federal court

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“There’s no reason to believe these maps will hold up for an entire decade,” Jeff Mandell of Law Forward told the Examiner — and that was even before the recent Supreme Court reversal. 

Even Justice Brian Hagedorn, who switched his position to accept the previously-rejected Republican map,  acknowledged that the map may well face a Voting Rights Act challenge in a future lawsuit.

“Perhaps a court deciding a VRA challenge on a more complete record would reach a different result,” Hagedorn wrote. “But I cannot conclude a violation is established based on the record we have before us.”

Justice Jill Karofsky wrote in a blistering dissent that the Legislature’s redistricting plan, far from being “race neutral,” as the majority claimed, “packed” Black voters into five districts — one fewer than the six districts in the old map, even though the Black population has increased. This, she wrote, violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act.

While the “window of opportunity” has closed to have a new trial with new evidence on voting maps before the 2022 elections, as Hagedorn wrote, voting rights groups will certainly appeal.

Meanwhile, there is another statewide election coming up in 2023 — for conservative Justice Patience Roggensack’s seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  A court with a different ideological balance could take up the maps again, before the next census.

So we might not have to wait a whole decade to be rid of the extreme partisan gerrymander that locks in Republican control of the Legislature and poisons our politics.

It takes a lot of patience to wait for fair maps now, after so much organizing, fighting and public pressure. Like spring in Wisconsin, it is taking an agonizingly long time to get to fairness, but if there’s one thing we Wisconsinites are good at, it’s perseverance.

Update: This piece was updated on April 21 at 4:25 p.m. to correct a quote that mistakenly identified the school district of Waterloo as Watertown.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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