Wisconsin Republicans are going to remarkable lengths to avoid holding a pair of special elections for two vacant seats in the state legislature.
After a district court ruled last week that Gov. Scott Walker (R) needed to schedule these races as soon as possible, state leadership called lawmakers back to the Capitol for an extraordinary session April 4 to change the law on how and when Wisconsin’s special elections are held. And Walker said he’d sign the legislation.
Republicans argue that holding these races now would be costly and pointless, since the legislature has finished its regular session for the year. But there is a critical matter pending that could require lawmakers to reconvene in Madison: redistricting.
The Supreme Court is expected to hand down a ruling this spring in Gill v. Whitford, a landmark case alleging that the state assembly’s map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to favor Republicans. The court could say new maps need to be drawn ahead of the 2018 midterms.
Blocking elections would prevent additional representatives from having a say in that process.
“There’s some concern that if the legislature is ordered by the Supreme Court to draw new maps, the GOP would like to have the largest margins possible in doing that,” said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Thanks in part to their gerrymander, Republicans currently hold 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly and 18 of 33 seats in the Senate. So Democratic wins in the special elections would still leave the GOP firmly in control. But, especially if Democrats pick up the Senate seat, Republicans could be left with a little less room to maneuver during the map-drawing process.
“The elections would create pressure points for people,” Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive group One Wisconsin Now, told TPM. “The GOP has a couple of people who have announced they’re going to be leaving. They have people who are going to be in competitive elections. This may be the thing that would make them want to be less partisan in the creation of their maps, and Scott Walker and the leadership does not want that to happen.”
Wisconsin Republicans have shown before they’re willing to play hardball on election rules since taking full control of government in 2011. In addition to their extreme gerrymander, which a federal court already found to be unconstitutional, they passed a strict voter ID law that may have helped hand the state to Donald Trump in 2016. They’ve also weakened campaign finance laws and passed a measure that dramatically diluted the political power of organized labor in the state.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.
Neither has mentioned redistricting as a concern in their public comments. Instead, they’ve said holding the special elections now would be “very messy” given that regularly scheduled elections are already on the books for the fall. Vos has lashed out at Judge Josann Reynolds, who Walker appointed in 2014, as an “activist” and “ultra-liberal” for ruling last week that the special election needed to be called to avoid disenfranchising thousands of voters in the two affected districts.
Bill McCoshen, a longtime GOP operative in Wisconsin, argued to TPM that Gill v. Whitford wasn’t a factor. Republicans think they’re “going to win that case,” McCoshen said. And even if they lose, the court could rule that the new maps don’t have to be in place until 2020, not 2018. Republicans also might win the open seats, were the special elections held.
Progressives and some outside analysts aren’t buying it, noting that Democrat Patty Schactner in January won a special election in a Republican-leaning district that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump — a victory that Walker himself called a “wake up call.”
“Scott Walker has a political problem and he’ll use any and all means in order to solve that, including changing the laws of the state of Wisconsin or ignoring them,” Ross told TPM.
“I think it’s completely plausible that they decided not to hold these two elections because they’re afraid of losing them,” Burden, the Wisconsin-Madison professor, concurred. “And not just losing these two seats, but that it will create a kind of momentum that encourages more Democrats to run and discourages some Republicans from seeking reelection.”
Walker announced that he would not hold the races back in December 2017, shortly after two GOP lawmakers vacated their seats to join his administration. Had he initiated the process of holding a special election back then, the general election in those races could have come in the first week of April, timed to coincide with a race for an open state Supreme Court seat.
Republicans say it wouldn’t have mattered, since no more votes are being held and lawmakers are out on the road campaigning for the regularly scheduled elections in the fall.
But that ignores the reality that extraordinary sessions (called by the legislature) or special sessions (which can be called only be the governor) can be convened to consider specific topics or bills. These sessions allow the dominant party in the legislature to push legislation through with less debate or opportunity for public comment than they’d receive in the regular process.
Wisconsin’s controversial right-to-work law, which bars unions from requiring employees to pay membership fees, was fast-tracked through during a 2015 extraordinary session, for example.
And special elections can have enduring consequences. Walker’s own political career was launched back in 1993 when he won a special election race for state Assembly.