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Why Polarization in Wisconsin Is 'Uniquely Severe'

The state faces a potential impeachment battle. As in Washington, the battle lines are nakedly partisan.

The election of Janet Protasiewicz to the state Supreme Court has upset Wisconsin's balance of power.
(Jeff Schear/Getty Images for WisDems/TNS)
In Brief:
  • Wisconsin Republicans are threatening to impeach a newly elected supreme court justice and fire the top election administrator.

  • They've passed a change to redistricting law but it doesn't satisfy Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

  • It's only the latest but one of the most important confrontations between the governor and the Legislature.

  • Most of the time, a politician wins applause if she promises to do something out on the campaign trail and then actually follows through once in office. That’s not the case in Wisconsin. There, keeping promises might be a firing offense.

    Back in April, Janet Protasiewicz won the most expensive judicial race in the nation’s history, not just winning a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court but tilting the nominally nonpartisan court from majority-conservative to majority-liberal. She did so in large part by arguing that the state’s legislative maps are “rigged” partisan gerrymanders and expressing grave doubts about the state’s 19th-century anti-abortion law.

    Republicans contend that Protasiewicz, who received some $10 million worth of campaign help from the Wisconsin Democratic Party, must recuse herself from these cases, having proven through her campaign messaging that she cannot be impartial. “When you’re saying that one side has rigged maps, you have made a decision that maps, in her opinion, are biased, which is the point of the whole case,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said earlier this month, referring to the gerrymandering dispute.

    You can see why people want to believe that judges, even elected judges, are neutral referees. But impeaching a newly elected justice for voting the way she said she would is a demonstration of “breathtaking contempt for the people of Wisconsin,” writes Jamelle Bouie, a liberal columnist for the New York Times. Such a move would “spark a political crisis in Wisconsin,” according to Anthony Chergosky, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

    Vos appeared to want to climb down from this threat, softening his rhetoric toward Protasiewicz a bit in recent days. On Tuesday, he introduced a bill that would shift redistricting responsibilities to staff in an apparent attempt to render moot legal challenges to the state’s current maps. The Assembly passed an amended version late Thursday.

    “We are going to get this bill passed, we are going to get it signed by Gov. Evers, we’re going to have maps that look different,” Vos said. “So there will be no need to have the whole discussion of recusal and millions of dollars of attack ads, special interests trying to buy the elections, all the things that we know are coming.”

    But it’s clear that Vos isn’t ready to lower the heat all the way down. On Wednesday, he announced that he’d appointed a panel of three retired — and anonymous — supreme court justices to lay out criteria for when current justices should be impeached. He described that as an “off-ramp” from actually impeaching Protaciewicz, yet he’s not letting her off the hook. "They're making it seem like I'm foaming at the mouth to have an impeachment process, but that is the last thing I want to have happen, which is why we have taken what I would say is a pretty radical step to offer a different path,” Vos said.

    Wisconsin Republicans have not hesitated in removing Democrats who stand in their way. On Thursday, the state Senate voted to remove Meagan Wolfe as the state’s chief election official.

    Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers are barely on speaking terms. Evers has called a special session for next week, asking legislators to increase funding for child care, workforce programs and higher education. As they have done with numerous sessions called by Evers in the past, legislators are expected to gavel in and out of session in less than a minute.

    When Wisconsin lawmakers are able to work together constructively, it’s so rare as to be exceptional. “The norms of politics do not seem to apply at this point in Wisconsin,” Chergosky says. “All the staples of normal government function are absent from the current political climate.”

    The Roots of Polarization

    Many states have polarized politics, but few if any can match Wisconsin. The state is narrowly divided. The last two presidential contests have been decided by less than a single percentage point. Last year, Evers won re-election with 51.1 percent of the vote, while Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson won a third term with 50.4 percent.

    As is the case in most states, the Democratic vote is heavily concentrated in the big city (Milwaukee) and the college town (Madison). Republicans who dominate most of the state’s geography do not disguise their political contempt for the state’s leading population centers. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” Vos said after Evers and other Democrats won statewide victories in 2018.

    Before Evers and state Attorney General Josh Kaul could take office following their wins, the Legislature moved to strip their offices of certain powers, a clear sign of distrust for the new leadership. Something similar happened in Michigan. But where Michigan Republicans lost their legislative majorities last year, thanks to maps drawn by a commission approved by voters, Wisconsin Republicans have remained insulated from any threats to their hold on power.

    After winning both legislative chambers and the governorship in 2010, Wisconsin Republicans took advantage of the fresh round of redistricting to draw themselves essentially insurmountable majorities. In 2012, the first year the new Assembly map was in effect, Republicans won only 46 percent of the Assembly votes statewide but came away with 60 percent of the seats.
    Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. Sometimes months have passed between even cursory meetings of the governor and legislative leaders.
    (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)
    Among many partisan gerrymanders, the Wisconsin Assembly map was particularly egregious. In 2016, a panel of federal judges found it unconstitutional. That case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately decided that federal courts have no business determining when a gerrymander might be too favorable to one party.

    State courts can still reject partisan gerrymanders, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court, at least until now, has been fine with it. In fact, in 2021, the conservative majority that still ruled the court decided the best course of action would be to leave the last decade’s maps largely intact.

    No matter how well Democrats performed statewide, Republicans were assured of legislative majorities. That unquestioned rule is what’s at stake with Protasiewicz’s new tenure on the court.

    Sticking It to Evers

    Legislative Republicans have done their best to ignore Evers. They’ve yawned at his legislative proposals. During the pandemic, they repeatedly sued Evers, convincing the state Supreme Court that he’d overstepped his authority with emergency orders that lasted for extended periods of time. After winning their first case in May 2020, the Legislature didn’t pass COVID-19 legislation until the following year.

    After stripping Evers of some formal powers, the Senate came up with a strategy of refusing to confirm most of his appointees. Agency heads have remained in “acting” capacities, never receiving confirmation votes unless or until the Senate decides to fire them, as with Wolfe, by voting to reject their nominations. “This was really unprecedented, that a governor doesn’t get to name his or her cabinet,” says Mordecai Lee, a retired political scientist at UW-Milwaukee. “If we ever don’t like what they do, we’ll bring it up on the floor and then vote them down.”

    One of former GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s appointees to the Natural Resources Board refused to step down in 2021 in favor of Evers’ pick. Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that he could not be removed without cause or confirmation of his successor. Since the Senate refused to act on his replacement, his expired term, in effect, didn’t expire.

    Wolfe hoped to use that precedent to keep her job as election administrator. The Wisconsin Elections Commission wanted to give her another term but, realizing she wouldn’t win Senate confirmation, opted not to do so. They decided to follow the Supreme Court’s guidance that she couldn’t be removed since no replacement was confirmed.

    That convoluted logic didn’t fly with the Senate, which voted Thursday to reject her confirmation. Whether they actually had the authority to do so is debatable — Attorney General Kaul and the Legislature’s own lawyers said they don’t. The question will no doubt head to the courts and ultimately may force the state Supreme Court to rethink its own, year-old precedent. Either way, it casts a partisan cloud over election administration in a state that is bound to be one of the few real battlegrounds in next year’s presidential election.

    “We can imagine, just to take the scenario to the extreme, a situation where Wisconsin is the decisive state and the Wisconsin Elections Commission is in crisis because of Wolfe’s status,” says Chergosky, the La Crosse professor.

    Autopilot at Best

    This spring, Evers and the GOP Legislature did something unusual. They worked together on a major piece of legislation. In June, Evers signed a bill that directed 20 percent of the state’s sales tax revenues to local governments, while increasing spending for both public schools and private school vouchers. It was a rare instance where Evers, Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu were able to find common ground.

    But it was a one-off. After Evers vetoed tax cuts included in this year’s budget, he said he would sign off on some cuts if legislators funded some of his spending priorities. Instead, the state Assembly passed a new, nearly $3 billion tax-cut package on Tuesday and, as noted earlier, they won’t bother to consider Evers’ spending proposals in next week’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it special session.

    Evers has already called Vos’ proposed redistricting overhaul “bogus,” saying he will veto the measure because it would remain too easy for legislators to amend and pass their own maps. The bill received no hearing and passed the Assembly with only a single Democratic vote. “Now, with the possibility that fair maps and nonpartisan redistricting may be coming to Wisconsin whether they like it or not, Republicans are making a last-ditch effort to retain legislative control by having someone Legislature-picked and Legislature-approved draw Wisconsin’s maps,” Evers said in a statement.

    And so Wisconsin is back where it normally is, with leaders from both parties accusing the other side of acting in bad faith. The normal process of give and take, with legislators and the governor coming up with offers and counter-offers, almost never happens. Instead, Republicans introduce bills they know Evers will veto, while ignoring any proposals he calls them into session to consider.

    Wisconsin won’t fall into complete dysfunction. The state’s government is set up to keep operating, even if agency heads aren’t appointed and even if budgets aren’t passed. Wisconsin has what amounts to an ongoing continuing resolution, where spending levels are maintained if new budgets aren’t passed.

    But it’s not a situation where state leaders are generally able to address issues through new legislation. “Polarization and partisan brinksmanship are nationwide trends,” Chergosky says, “but those trends are uniquely severe in Wisconsin.”
    Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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