Republicans in Wisconsin aim to limit the power of newly elected Democrats

Republicans in Wisconsin aim to limit the power of newly elected Democrats

TONY EVERS, Wisconsin’s incoming governor, is a conciliatory and mild-mannered sort. Not so his abrasive Republican predecessor. Scott Walker (pictured) relished confrontation and drama during his eight years in office. He tore through institutions in Wisconsin, slashing public spending—especially on education—and weakening the power of public officials, teachers and unions. He also took advantage of political polarisation. Early in his governorship he survived a recall election that pitted furious city-dwelling voters against Republicans mostly in small towns and villages spread around the state. Wisconsinites have been bitterly at odds ever since. Katherine Cramer, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the elections in November confirmed that “stark division” especially as urban liberals in places like Madison and Milwaukee lined up against rural, conservative Republicans.

It is no surprise, then, that Mr Walker is not going gracefully. He and fellow Republican leaders in the state legislature—both the house and senate remain under his party’s control—launched a furious campaign this week to weaken Mr Evers. In a lame-duck session of the legislature, as hundreds of poster-wielding protesters chanted “shame, shame”, Republicans put forward a range of measures to limit the new governor’s freedom of action. On December 5th the senate and house had approved a revised version of the main power-stripping bill.

The Republicans’ measures would hinder Mr Evers in fulfilling his promise to withdraw Wisconsin from a national lawsuit against the expansion of affordable health care, make it difficult to reverse new rules for voter identification and remove his oversight of many legal matters. Another plan would hobble the powers of the attorney-general. One more that failed to pass would have shifted the date of Wisconsin’s primary elections in 2020 (intended to help a conservative justice win re-election to the state’s Supreme Court). Yet another was proposed to ban early voting more than two weeks prior to polling day, a measure that would mostly reduce Democratic votes.

The Republicans’ efforts look ugly and violate a democratic norm: parties rejected by voters usually do not then spring previously unannounced legislative measures. Lawmakers also appeared to ignore the will of voters by attempting to block Mr Evers from delivering on specific promises made in his campaign, such as on health. The Republicans’ move looks crass too, given their dwindling popularity. Democrats not only won every state-wide post in November, they also scooped 54% of the vote for house seats; they only failed to win legislative control, getting just 36 of 99 seats in the house, because of  extreme gerrymandering in Wisconsin. It is hard to imagine the Republicans’ latest moves will enamour them to voters in the future. 

Mr Evers, in what were strong words for him, condemned the Republican effort, saying it “goes to the heart of what democracy is all about” and calling it “an embarrassment for the state”. He appealed for protesters to shame Republicans into stopping and suggested he may launch a legal battle. Others were more forthright. A writer at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, along with many op-ed columnists, warned that the Republicans threatened to “undermine democracy”. David Axelrod, a former Democratic strategist who is now at the University of Chicago, called Mr Walker’s manoeuvres “one last outrageous, partisan power grab as he exits the statehouse”. Trying to justify their party’s actions, Republican figures in Wisconsin said they were interested (after years in which Mr Walker’s personal clout did not trouble them) in seeking a better balance of power between legislature and executive. Robin Vos, Speaker of the assembly, also called Mr Evers too liberal for his liking.

It is now up to Mr Walker to sign off on the legislation as one of his final acts as governor, weakening the position of his successor. Legal wrangling is sure to follow. Nonetheless Mr Evers will retain many powers, including an especially handy governor’s line-item veto over legislation. That matters because it could give him influence over individual lawmakers, and so a means to appeal to more moderate Republican assembly members. He also will have the ability to make lots of political appointments and gather other centralised decision-making in his office.

Nonetheless, the events in Wisconsin are unedifying and will spread cynicism about politicians’ self-serving behaviour. It may be an exaggeration to say democracy is under threat, but norms are. A pattern is emerging in which Republicans in many states are seen trying to suppress votes, and then to hobble the powers of elected officials they don’t like. In Michigan, too, a Republican-controlled legislature is trying to put limits on a newly elected Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, apparently to prevent scrutiny of campaign finance, among other measures. Republicans in both states are following a lead from North Carolina, two years ago, where another Republican-controlled legislature put limits on a newly elected Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, leading to clashes in court and popular dismay.

Not all the bad behaviour is on the Republican side. Just as Democrats are involved in gerrymandering in many states, some of their elected representatives have meddled with the power of officials. In Alabama, in 1999, the Democratic-run legislature stripped most powers from the office of lieutenant governor because a Republican, for the first time in decades, had won it. But such cases look rare compared with the rush of Republican efforts under way in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Michigan.

It would be worse still if these cases encouraged confrontation in other states in which the parties govern together. Kansas, for example, has a new Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, who must manage a Republican-run legislature. Maryland and Massachusetts, in turn, are states where Republican governors have to co-exist with Democratic lawmakers. Co-operation in such places depends on the personality of the politicians involved. The unusually abrasive Mr Walker will soon be gone. It would be a pity if his behaviour became the norm elsewhere, too.

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