Republicans, about to lose their grip on power in a number of states, are souring Democrats’ election wins — and Wisconsin is taking charge.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a slate of bills — passed by Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled legislature — that will curb incoming Democrat governor-elect Tony Evers’s power in office, and potentially make it harder for Democrats to get elected in the future.
The laws will limit Evers’s power to change policies around welfare, health care, and economic development; put limits on the incoming Democratic attorney general; and cut down early voting.
A similar tale is playing out in Michigan, where Democrats Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel, and Jocelyn Benson handily won the governor, attorney general, and secretary of state races, respectively. Michigan Republicans are trying to guarantee the GOP-controlled legislature the right to intervene in any legal battles involving state laws that the attorney general may be reluctant to defend, as well as remove campaign finance oversight from the Secretary of State’s office.
There are not many ways to spin it; it’s a power grab that would seriously undermine the platform on which these Democrats campaigned on, and won. Even Wisconsin’s Republican state House Speaker Robin Vos admitted that Republicans were seeking the changes because “we are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”
Two years ago, North Carolina set the precedent for this kind of move, when the Republican-controlled legislature stripped then-incoming Democrat Roy Cooper’s power over Cabinet appointments, made the state’s judicial system more partisan, and ensured that the state’s board of elections would be controlled by Republicans in election years. Cooper has been in legal fights over the changes since.
Now Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan are playing by the same book.
Republican’s power grab in Wisconsin, explained
Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature has overhauled the powers of the governor. In early December, Republican state lawmakers unveiled a 141-page package of bills that would give Republicans power over key gubernatorial decisions and weaken the role of the attorney general, as well as proposals to limit voter turnout.
“Wisconsin law, written by the legislature and signed into law by a governor, should not be erased by the potential political maneuvering of the executive branch,” Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a joint statement.
After only one day of hearings, a secret overnight negotiations, Republicans passed a package of changes, which Walker has now signed into law. The changes will:
- Cut down the number of early voting days, limiting it to two weeks. This would likely draw legal challenges; the proposal is very similar to a previous law that the courts struck down in 2016 for “stifling votes for partisan gain.”
- Give the legislature more power over the boards of certain commissions, like the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), the state’s jobs-focused agency, which has come under a lot of scrutiny for giving the Taiwanese company Foxconn Technology Group $3 billion in tax breaks in exchange for their $10 billion factory — an investment that even the state’s Legislative Bureau said the state wouldn’t bring returns until after 2043. Evers said he wanted to get rid of WEDC altogether, as it has garnered a reputation for falling short of its jobs promise.
- Limit Evers’s abilities to change the state’s work requirement laws around food stamps and health care, giving the legislature oversight over any federal waivers the state has received. Walker pushed for Medicaid work requirement waivers and waivers to drug test food stamp recipients.
- Stop Wisconsin’s incoming attorney general from withdrawing the state from a federal lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, instead requiring legislative approval to do so.
Republicans didn’t vote on other proposals that would have allowed the Republican legislature to hire its own lawyers to effectively replace the Democratic attorney general altogether. Also stripped out of the deal: changing the date for Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary from April to March to protect a conservative state Supreme Court candidate.
Wisconsin Democrats made a splash in 2018, finally unseating Walker and winning statewide races across the border; Democrat Josh Kaul also ousted Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. They campaigned on removing restrictions around welfare, protecting the Affordable Care Act, and creating jobs. But the legislature will remain in Republican hands, and those lawmakers want to make sure they maintain power, even under Democratic leadership.
“This is just the legislature, after losing the election somewhat surprisingly, deciding they don’t they want an attorney general from the opposing party,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist from the University of Wisconsin Madison. “That’s just nullifying the election results.”
Walker, however, said “the overwhelming executive of authority I have as governor today will remain constant with the next governor,” as he signed the bills.
Evers, the governor-elect, has called the power grab as a “desperate” move from people who want to “cling to control.”
“Republicans have to stop putting politics before people,” Evers said in a statement. “Wisconsinites demanded a change on November 6th. I stand with the people of Wisconsin, and we will be taking any steps necessary to prevent power-hungry politicians from overriding the will of the people.”
Protesters have descended on the state Capitol in an attempt to lobby the legislature, but unfortunately for the state’s Democrats, it looks like Evers is staring down years of legal action to try to reverse these changes.
Michigan Republican’s push for more power under Democratic control, explained
Wisconsin isn’t the only state undergoing the pains of a transition of power. In Michigan, the November midterm elections brought a total rebuke of Michigan’s Republicans.
For the first time in nearly three decades, the top three positions in the state’s executive branch will be held by Democrats. And in the face of that, Republican state leaders are using the lame-duck session to push forward government changes that would limit Democrats’ power in the state.
One bill would ensure the Republican-controlled legislature has the opportunity to defend state laws in court, even if the Democratic administration is reluctant to do so.
For example, Nessel, the attorney general-elect, has said she may not defend the 2015 law that allows faith-based adoption agencies to decline to work with same-sex couples, an issue that remains tied up in the courts.
Another proposal would shift the oversight of the state’s campaign finance law away from the secretary of state’s office and to a commission that would include an equal number of members from each party, appointed by the governor at the advisement of the state’s Republican and Democratic parties.
These proposals have already sparked partisan bickering. As in Wisconsin, Republicans in Michigan argue that these proposals are just about good governance, while Democrats point out that this sudden dedication to checks and balances comes only when the top three positions in the state will be held by Democrats.
“Those legislators pushing this law should be reminded that the people elect their attorneys general and their governors and such a proposal — should it pass — would have a dramatic and disastrous impact on the state of Michigan and its residents for years to come,” a spokesperson for Nessel’s transition team told the Detroit Free Press.
When good governance becomes a partisan play
Michigan and Wisconsin are quickly becoming the next North Carolina, where the Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has been suing for powers that generations of governors before him were afforded.
The question is less about good governance than about when good governance becomes the priority. The intentions here are explicit.
This is about “protecting those reforms from an incoming governor who campaigned to wipe them out,” writes Matt Kittle of the MacIver Institute, a conservative Wisconsin think tank. “While political motives are clearly in play, the Republican-led majority does have the clear constitutional authority to call such a session and to pass laws that demand more accountability of the executive branch.”
This is largely a continuation of a familiar story in Wisconsin, where Republicans have enjoyed full control for the greater part of the past decade — a power they have used to strengthen their hold in the state.
Despite losing the popular vote this year, Republicans still control both chambers of the state legislature and five of its eight congressional seats; it’s the product of some aggressive gerrymandering that diverges from the state’s reputation as a political battleground. Democrats managed to break through in statewide races this year, but Republicans are adamant about making sure the platform that won in the state doesn’t play out.
“We know from history when Republicans do not like results of elections, they seek to change the rules of how everything else processes,” said Analiese Eicher with the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, which successfully sued the state over voting restrictions in 2015 decision.
Three years later, they’re preparing for another fight.
“We’re in contact with our attorneys,” Eicher said.