Wisconsin loves nail-biter elections. Each of the last two winning presidential candidates carried the state by less than 1%, and the last gubernatorial election in 2018 was decided by a razor-thin 30,000 votes.
Yet, most of Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate races in the past decade have been Republican landslides, with more of the same expected in this year’s elections.
Republicans are within reach of a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature with less than a month to go before Election Day on Nov. 8. If Republicans win two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly and Senate, they would have near-total control over Wisconsin politics — even if Democratic Gov. Tony Evers wins reelection.
Currently, Republicans hold a 61-38 majority in the Assembly and a 21-12 majority in the Senate. If the party picks up five seats in the Assembly and just one in the Senate, it would secure the two-thirds supermajority it needs to craft policies that bypass the governor’s veto pen.
Gov. Evers vetoed 126 bills during the most recent Legislative session, the most ever by any Wisconsin governor, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau. The bills, nearly all proposed by Republicans, would have drastically altered election policy, education funding, gun control regulations and welfare eligibility.
Those bills could easily become law if Republicans secure a supermajority next month regardless of which party wins the governor’s race, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Ryan Owens.
“[Republicans] will be able to push a lot of bills they wanted to push recently but have seen vetoed by the governor,” Owens said.
Ten years ago, a Republican supermajority was far from likely. In fact, Democrats controlled the state Senate heading into the 2012 elections after a series of preceding recall elections handed them a slim 17-15 majority.
When the dust settled after the 2012 general election, Republicans held a 17-15 Senate majority despite Democrats receiving a 50.5% majority of all statewide Senate votes, according to Wisconsin Watch. The results were even more lopsided in the Assembly, where Republicans still won a commanding 60-39 majority while earning roughly 200,000 fewer votes than Democrats.
Republicans’ overperformance stemmed from a favorable 2011 redistricting process. Because Republicans controlled the Legislature and Governor’s office at the time, they were able to draw district lines that disproportionately benefited Republican candidates, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature each submitted redrawn maps in 2020, but disagreement between the two parties led to a slew of court cases that resulted in a new map, which still heavily favored Republicans.
“Republicans took this gerrymander that's been considered the worst in the country and made it even worse,” progressive columnist and The Recombobulation Area founder Dan Shafer told the Daily Cardinal.
“The way the map breaks down and the fact that there's even a chance for a Republican two-thirds supermajority in a 50/50 split state just goes to show you how absurd these maps are,” Shafer added.
Democrats on the defense
Republican leaders are hoping to capitalize on the new maps and win a supermajority in the upcoming Nov. 8 election.
“If for some reason we are unsuccessful in defeating Evers, a veto-proof majority is the second priority,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Associated Press on Monday. “Evers is a major stumbling block. It's about being able to get things done that the people of Wisconsin want."
Republicans are funneling money into battleground races across the state in hopes of securing a legislative supermajority. These include districts near Superior, Eau Claire, La Crosse, the Fox Valley and Milwaukee’s suburbs.
Their biggest pickup opportunity is arguably Senate District 25 in far northwestern Wisconsin. Senate Minority Leader and current Democratic incumbent Janet Bewley announced in February she would not seek re-election, sparking a highly-competitive race in a district that voted 51.9% for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats have held the district since the late 1980s. However, recent rightward shifts in rural areas have made the district more competitive, according to Democratic Senate candidate Kelly Westlund.
Westlund is challenging Republican candidate Romaine Quinn in the race to succeed Bewley. With Republicans vying to flip two other vulnerable Democratic-held Assembly seats in the region, Westlund has no margin for error.
“If every person who voted in the last midterm voted the same way this time around, then the Democrat running for Senate would have only won by four votes total,” Westlund said. “Every single vote matters, and we really have to work hard to turn out our base.”
What would a Republican supermajority look like?
If Republicans do secure a supermajority in the Legislature on Nov. 8, Wisconsinites can expect the state to take a sharp rightward turn.
Gov. Evers vetoed 146 Republican bills during his four years as governor, according to FOX6 News. Though a sizable number were part of disputes over COVID-19 pandemic policy and American Rescue Plan Act relief funding, others would have made widespread changes to education, crime and voting policy, among other areas.
Evers compared his vetoes to playing “goalie” at a Milwaukee Press Club event Tuesday, adding that Republicans’ bills would likely pass if he lost his veto pen.
“Wisconsin will be a different place,” Evers said.
During the last legislative session, Evers vetoed multiple bills that would have increased resources for state private and charter schools. Rejected Republican proposals included more funding for the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program and greater freedom for charter school authorization — both of which Evers claimed could lead to increased property taxes.
Another education bill, AB 411, would have banned publicly-funded schools from teaching about certain race and sex discrimination topics. Schools that violated the policy would have received a 10% decrease in state aid. A separate bill, SB 409, would have applied similar restrictions to UW System schools and Wisconsin technical colleges.
A number of Republican proposals would have tightened eligibility requirements for state welfare programs. These included new drug testing and employment requirements for Wisconsin’s FoodShare program as well as Medicaid enrollment requirements Evers said conflicted with federal law.
Republicans also introduced a slew of elections administration legislation that aimed to restrict absentee voting practices, including new requirements for seniors, poll workers and municipal clerks.
One bill, SB 941, would have created legislative oversight over the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which Evers claimed would have granted the Republican-controlled Legislature “unchecked [and] potentially unconstitutional” power over state elections.
“Elected officials should not be able to abuse their power to cheat or control the outcomes
of our elections or to prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots,” Evers wrote when he vetoed the bill in April.
Kelly Westlund worries that if Republicans win a supermajority and gain full control over Wisconsin’s legislative process, they may enact election laws that give the Legislature more influence over the 2024 presidential election.
She called it a “dangerous scenario” for Wisconsin’s democracy.
“It's not just what's at stake in this election — it’s what’s at stake in the next presidential election,” Westlund said. “This is a piece of the puzzle that could kind of pave that way for somebody like Donald Trump to get the presidency again, regardless of the popular vote outcome.”
Tyler Katzenberger is the managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. As a former state news editor, he covered numerous protests and wrote state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerKatzen.