Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans battled for control of the state Assembly from 1958 to 2010 — with control of the chamber flipping back and forth between the parties. Democrats controlled it for 14 sessions, Republicans for seven. Then, after the 2011 legislative gerrymandering by Republican legislators and Gov. Scott Walker, the competition stopped.
The Republican caucus in the 99-seat chamber grew from 59 members to 60 members to 63 members to 64 members. Gerrymandering was a huge factor; in 2012, Democrats won 174,000 more votes than Republicans in Assembly races, securing a 53 percent to 46 percent advantage in the voting for those legislative seats. Yet the Republicans finished with a 60-39 majority.
The gerrymandering was so severe that it has been successfully challenged in the federal courts, and could lead to remapping before the 2018 election. But that’s not guaranteed. And it’s important for Democrats to recognize that gerrymandering is not the only factor in their extended turmoil.
Money was a huge factor in the advancement of Wisconsin’s legislative Republicans. Billionaire campaign donors from outside Wisconsin were determined to maintain Republican majorities that sustained Walker’s assaults on worker rights, public education and public services. It is likely that Republicans will maintain a money advantage going forward, as Walker remains one of the GOP’s most masterful fundraisers — and while he collects cash primarily for himself, he is not going to let the legislative majorities he relies on slip away without a fight.
But something else was in play in 2014 and 2016, and that could redefine races for the state Assembly and for the more frequently competitive state Senate.
One of the reasons why Democrats had a hard time gaining traction was because Wisconsin’s Republican Assembly candidates were running in good years for Republicans. That was certainly the case in 2014, a wave election year for Republicans nationally and in Wisconsin. It was also at least somewhat the case in 2016, when Donald Trump ran far better than expected nationally and in Wisconsin and when a good deal of straight-ticket voting benefited down-ballot Republicans in the Badger state.
So what happens if Wisconsin’s Democratic Assembly candidates are running in a good year for Democrats? Could they overcome the gerrymandering and the money?
The results from last week’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Washington offer Wisconsin Democrats a lot to get excited about. Surfing a rising tide of disdain for President Donald Trump — whose approval ratings have dipped into the mid-thirties — Democrats in all three states won legislative races where they do not usually win.
“They won all over America, where Democrats have never won before,” said Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich, who said the results were influenced not just by Trump but by Republicans “playing to their extreme base” — in Washington and in the states.
At a time when Kasich said Republicans were making their party smaller, Democrats got bigger. Pretty much everywhere.
In the state of Washington, a special election for the state Senate gave Democrats control of the chamber and, with it, full control of state government along the lines that Wisconsin Republicans have generally controlled state government under Walker.
In New Jersey, Democrats expanded overwhelming majorities in the state Assembly and the state Senate and, now that Democrat Phil Murphy is replacing Republican Chris Christie as governor, will have full control of state government for the first time in eight years.
In Virginia, Democrats entered the 2017 competition in a position roughly equivalent to that of Wisconsin Democrats. In the Virginia House of Delegates (that state’s equivalent of the Wisconsin Assembly), Democrats held only 34 of 100 seats. They were at such an overwhelming disadvantage that almost no one imagined that the party could take charge of the chamber. They faced the gerrymandering and money-in-politics challenges that Wisconsin Democrats face. And they faced an ever higher historical wall: After winning control of the chamber in 1999, Virginia Republicans had never lost it.
On Nov. 7, however, Democratic fortunes improved — dramatically. Democrats gained at least 15 seats on election night and recounts could give them a few more. By the weekend, Virginia papers were reckoning with a new political geography in which “the commonwealth teeters toward what could be a 51-49 or 50-50 split in a House long dominated by the GOP.”
Were Wisconsin Democrats to add 15 seats to their total, they would have a 50-49 advantage — taking back control of the chamber. And it would be reasonable to imagine that, in a Democratic wave election, Wisconsin Democrats could also take back the more competitive state Senate.
What the Virginia results tell Wisconsin Democrats — and what to a lesser extent they are told by the Washington and New Jersey results — is that they have to rethink their approach to legislative elections. The 2018 competition — whether or not it is shaped by a court ruling that upsets gerrymandering — has the potential to be far more competitive than the most optimistic partisans imagined two weeks ago.
But potential only becomes reality when it is seized upon. The reason that Democrats ran so well on Nov. 7, especially in Virginia, was because they opened their party up to the anti-Trump energy of the resistance. Instead of running cautiously, they broke new ground — nominating a remarkable slate of candidates that included women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, democratic socialists, union members, teachers, environmental activists and contenders whose lives had been touched by gun violence.
The candidates brought personal energy and passion to the competition. They rejected talking points, colored outside the lines, and forged a new politics that was about a lot more than Trump.
Could a similar slate break the GOP grip on Wisconsin in 2018? Yes.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.