Scott Walker’s Democratic Successor Fights Off Aggressive GOP Power Grab

It only took one day.

By the afternoon of Nov. 7, less than 24 hours after projections showed Tony Evers defeating Scott Walker in the Wisconsin governor’s race, Republican leaders were surfacing plans to curb the authority of the incoming Democratic governor.

A steady stream of plots, plans and power grabs has been emanating from the Capitol building in Madison ever since. Republican lawmakers have proposed using a lame duck session to limit Evers’ ability to name appointees to state boards and further enshrine the state’s voter photo ID requirement, among other suggestions. They’re also mulling changing the date of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary in a rather bald attempt to hold onto a state Supreme Court seat.

The election of Evers—a moderate who built a career outside of the partisan party system and has made overtures to Republican lawmakers—offered the prospect of the end to a decade of brute-force GOP control. But these early maneuvers have some Wisconsin Democrats predicting that the battle is just beginning.

“These actions have gone so far in poisoning the water,” Thomas Nelson, a former Democratic Assembly member and candidate for lieutenant governor, told TPM. “I fear they set the table for a very contentious and unproductive legislative session.”

“I don’t see any difference between the current Republican legislature in Madison and what [Sen.] Mitch McConnell said when [President] Obama was elected,” Eric Couto, executive director of advocacy group Wisconsin Progress, told TPM. “Basically ‘We’re going to do everything we can to stop him and hamper his agenda at every turn.’”

“These are folks who’ve been in power for eight years,” Couto continued. “They’re watching their power slip away. There’s no basement.”

GOP lawmakers have been fairly candid about their motivations in post-election interviews with the media. House Speaker Robin Vos has said that the legislature may have “granted too much power to the executive” during Walker’s tenure, and asserted that Republicans “are not going to roll over and play dead like they assume we probably should.”

Similar comments were made by state Sen. Alberta Darling, while outgoing Rep. Adam Jarchow urged Walker to pass “big, bold reforms” in his final weeks in office. Walker himself has given his blessing to these proposals.

Vos’ office did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment. Dan Romportl, chief of staff for state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said in an email that GOP lawmakers haven’t officially “reached a position on any of the proposals that have been discussed in the press.”

“We anticipate holding a caucus in the coming weeks to discuss our legislative priorities for a potential extraordinary session in December, but until then we have not committed to advancing anything specific,” Romportl said.

Evers has pushed back some, with his team accusing Republicans of “desperate” moves to hold on to power. But this is a fight he’s uninterested in having. Publicly calling for unity, he has avoided taking personal potshots at GOP leaders and moved ahead with picking his transition team.

This is a matter of both personality and campaign promises. The former state schools superintendent was not the most progressive candidate to emerge from the crowded primary field, and he’s expressed interest in working with Republican lawmakers on everything from fixing the state’s snow-ravaged roads to criminal justice reform.

Evers has little choice but to do so. An Associated Press analysis found that gerrymandering helped Republicans maintain their hold on the state legislature, losing just one Assembly seat for a final balance of 63 seats to Democrats’ 33. In the state Senate, they gained a seat, earning them a 19-14 majority.

But Evers is also simply a “less polarizing figure than Walker,” University of Wisconsin, Madison political science professor Barry Burden told TPM.

“Evers is just more of a mild politician—somebody who didn’t come up through the party but had won office as an independent, and had been a teacher,” Burden continued. “I think his natural inclination about how to approach these debates is different.”

Some progressive groups point to the early attempts to curb Evers’ power as an indication that more aggressive tactics are needed.

“This is more than [GOP leaders] simply having their finger in the wind,” Terrance Warthen, co-chair of Our Wisconsin Revolution, told TPM. “I think this was their plan from the beginning. The understanding was there that Walker was more than likely on his way out.”

Among those plans: limiting Evers’ power to make appointments to the state economic development corporation, a public-private agency created by Walker in 2011 to replace the state department of commerce. That agency facilitated a controversial deal with Chinese electronics manufacturer Foxconn that critics have called a $3 billion tax giveaway.

After passing a law to grant Walker the power to approve or reject regulations proposed by state agencies, lawmakers are now considering stripping that power from Evers.

In perhaps the most audacious proposal, they’re considering moving up the date of the April 2020 presidential primary. Democrats are expected to show up en masse to determine who will face off against Donald Trump, and that high turnout could hurt Republicans’ chances in a Supreme Court race also scheduled for that day.

All of this comes on top of the fight earlier this year by Walker and GOP leadership to avoid holding special elections for two open seats in the legislature, citing taxpayer expense and inconvenience.

Asked why he did not feel the need to stagger the presidential primary and Supreme Court election in the 2016 cycle, Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “Unless you’ve got a time machine, I can’t go back.”

Couto, of Wisconsin Progress, fears that all of these measures will be rolled into one large bill along with more milquetoast measures and passed while voters are occupied with the winter holidays, paying little attention to the news.

“What I expect is they’ll flood the zone with proposals ‘til a bill is ready,” Couto said. “They’ll put some lame stuff in there along with these poison pills and then their members will be able to say, ‘Well I didn’t agree with the poison pills but I wanted to vote for the other good stuff.’”

While progressive activists gear up for a fight in the short-term, Warthen of Our Wisconsin Revolution said he predicts the GOP’s moves are ultimately self-sabotaging. Signs of the voter backlash were visible in the midterms, he said, with Democrats sweeping statewide offices from U.S. Senate to secretary of state to attorney general.

Warthen noted that his organization, originally formed to support Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid, was composed of 12-15 percent registered Republicans.

“They’re losing a percentage of their own bloc, the same way the President is beginning to lose Republicans that are paying attention,” Warthen said. “I don’t think this is going to be as effective as they think it will be.”

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