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Wisconsin Republicans have a real chance at a supermajority in the state legislature
Introducing The Recombobulation Area's 2022 Wisconsin State Legislature Election Preview.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
This column is part of The Recombobulation Area’s 2022 Wisconsin State Legislature Election Preview. Subscribe to see the rest of the series in your inbox.
There are 116 seats on the ballot this year in the Wisconsin State Legislature. In the State Senate, there are 17 seats up for election and in the State Assembly, as always, there are 99 seats that will be on ballots across Wisconsin.
While the races for Senate and for governor at the top of the ticket are undeniably significant, these elections down ballot matter a great deal – sometimes more, even. In Wisconsin, the state legislature has far-reaching powers, and the decisions made there have a greater effect than in other states. With the way government is structured in the state – lower levels of local control, more power for the state government – so many of the big decisions being made that impact local communities happen in the state legislature. Its importance cannot be overstated.
So every two years, the balance of power in this massively important governing body is determined by the voters. Within every last race is a chance for something new. The people in each district have the power to determine who will be representing them for the next two or four years.
But over the past decade in Wisconsin, the hope and opportunity that the uncertainty of each election brings has been dimmed. Under Republican rule, Wisconsin’s state legislature has become the nation’s most gerrymandered, so much so that the state’s level of democracy has drawn comparisons to the non-democracies of Bahrain and the Congo.
GOP-led redistricting in 2011, which followed the 2010 wave election, gave Republicans nearly insurmountable margins of control in the state legislature, and they’ve held huge majorities ever since. Documentation revealed just how specifically legislators were in choosing the districts they would represent, and that precision would pay dividends, with Republicans never holding fewer than 60 of 99 seats in the Assembly, and growing their margin in the Senate throughout the decade, from 18-15 in 2012 to 21-12 now.
It wasn’t until 2018 that any Democratic legislator was able to flip a Republican-held seat — a year that saw Democrats now-famously win a majority of legislative votes in the aggregate popular vote, but still see a 63-36 Republican advantage heading into the next term. Some of that can be explained by the state’s political geography and Democrats not performing as well in rural areas as they had in the past, but that doesn’t come close to explaining this enormous chasm between the voters and their representatives.
These maps have been Republicans’ skeleton key for wielding power in Wisconsin no matter what happens. Democrats and candidates backed by Democrats have won 10 of the last 11 statewide elections, but Republicans are still running the show in the state government.
After the 2018 election of Gov. Tony Evers, Republicans stripped power from the executive branch and shifted it to their own control in the legislature during the lame-duck session. During the height of the covid-19 pandemic in Wisconsin, the legislature took a nearly 300-day break from passing any bills during a moment of genuine crisis, leading to catastrophic results. During his time as governor, Evers has called 12 special sessions, and the legislature has gaveled-in and gaveled-out of almost all of them in a matter of seconds, refusing to even debate any of the issues and legislation being raised. In the last session, less than 2% of bills introduced by Democrats were even given a public hearing, all while an insulting, expensive, unaccountable “investigation” of the 2020 election results raged on for well over a year, producing no evidence of election fraud. Under Republican leadership’s direction, the full-time legislature is now again in the midst of a nine-month break from legislating.
Republicans are operating with entrenched one-party rule, and have broken politics in the state of Wisconsin over the last decade. They don’t even pretend to try to work with Democrats anymore. And because of their gerrymandered maps, they don’t necessarily have to.
Now, in 2022, we have a new set of maps. Somehow, these maps that were proposed and approved and – after a rather confounding legal process – eventually adopted are even more egregiously unfair than the ones that decimated democracy in Wisconsin for the previous decade.
Wisconsin Republicans took the most unfair gerrymander in the nation and made it even worse. The number of competitive districts shrunk even further, and the GOP’s advantage was made even greater. For left-trending districts, goalposts were moved with these new lines so that it would be that much harder for a Democrat to win. One seat, for example – the 13th District in the western suburbs of Milwaukee – was flipped by Democrats in the 2020 election, but new maps shifted it from a seat that leans Democratic by less than 1% to one that leans Republican by nearly 16%.
It continues to be utterly repulsive to see just how shamelessly Republicans have gerrymandered this state.
With these new maps, Republicans now have a better chance of winning a supermajority than Democrats have of winning a simple majority. And this is Wisconsin, mind you – perhaps the most evenly divided 50-50 purple state in the nation. So many of our statewide elections are decided by decimal points, and yet, basic competition for control of the legislature has been made to be entirely out of reach by these outrageous maps.
In this upcoming election, Republicans are favored to win a two-thirds supermajority in the State Senate and have a real chance at reaching that same threshold in the State Assembly.
In that case, even if Evers is re-elected as governor — not a sure thing, with Republican challenger Tim Michels close in the polls — the legislature would have the power to override his veto. Evers set a record for most bills vetoed in one session during the last cycle. And as The New York Times’ Reid Epstein recently wrote, “There is at the moment no functional way for Democrats to carry out any sort of policy agenda in Madison; their only hope is to have a governor who will veto things.”
That hope is six seats away from evaporating.
If Republicans are able to flip five Assembly seats without losing any they currently hold, a deeply troubling new era will begin in Wisconsin’s state politics. One-party rule would be further entrenched, and our state’s rapidly eroding democracy could crumble entirely. Republicans have spent much of the last two years since 2020 fraudulently saying that our votes do not count. If the Republicans were to gain a supermajority, that insulting assertion would effectively become our reality.
Preventing a supermajority is as important, if not more so, than re-electing Tony Evers or sending Mandela Barnes to the Senate. Obviously, if Michels were to defeat Evers, it creates a different dynamic entirely, with trifecta Republican control and a veto becoming a relative afterthought. But between Evers’ re-election fight and the a handful of seats in the state legislature, democracy in Wisconsin is resting on a knife’s edge, and a few Assembly races will determine its fate.
Restoring our democracy is a fight that starts from the bottom-up. It starts here, in the Wisconsin State Legislature.
So, here at The Recombobulation Area, we are previewing all 116 races. We’re using a combination of several factors for the preview, including our own reporting, projections from state legislative analysis page CNalysis (which correctly projected 98 of 99 Assembly races in 2020), and statistics from our friend John D. Johnson of Marquette University, who averaged the results from the 2016 presidential, 2018 gubernatorial and 2020 presidential election results in each to calculate a “seat lean” of which party has the advantage and to what degree in each district.
Let’s recombobulate, on all 116 races.
COMING SOON: The Recombobulation Area’s 2022 Wisconsin State Legislature Election Preview: State Senate
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. His work was recently featured in The New York Times. Before launching The Recombobulation Area in 2019, he worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.