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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

While an independent group will draw a set of congressional maps to propose to the Wisconsin legislature, Republican leaders have already stated they won’t support the maps — which could lead to a court battle. 

Wisconsin adopted new legislative maps. Here’s what they mean

Wisconsin’s new legislative maps will change competition, turnover and candidate strategy in upcoming years.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers passed a proposal Feb. 19 to redraw Wisconsin’s legislative maps, changing the landscape of Wisconsin politics for years to come.

The new maps follow the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision in December to rule the state’s maps unconstitutional because districts were not contiguous, meaning all parts of a voting district were not physically in contact. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the new maps still allow competitive elections for Republicans and end “decades of liberal special interest litigation over maps in Wisconsin.” 

Wisconsin redraws its legislative and congressional district maps every 10 years using data from the decennial census. Last year, Evers could not reach an agreement for new maps with the Republican-controlled Legislature, leaving the then-conservative leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court to choose new maps. The court voted 4-3 in favor of a Republican plan similar to the 2011 legislative maps, which gave the GOP sizable electoral advantage.

Currently, Republicans hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and a 22-11 supermajority in the Senate.

All members of the Assembly and state senators in even-numbered districts will run in redrawn districts in 2024. State senators in odd-numbered districts will remain in office until their current term ends in 2026.

Here’s what we know about the new maps ahead the upcoming election:

Incumbencies may create turnover 

Some incumbent lawmakers will now face conflict because they were moved to districts with other incumbents, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Barry Burden. 

“People are very focused on the fact that Democrats and Republicans are now both going to be competitive to win [and] control the Legislature. An equally big consequence of these new maps is that a lot of incumbents are going to be uncomfortable,” Burden told The Daily Cardinal. 

Burden anticipates many politicians will end their time in public office or find it too difficult to run against their colleague, resulting in historic turnover in the Legislature. 

The 53rd Assembly District, represented by Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, has moved north to include Neenah, Menasha and parts of Appleton under Evers’ maps. The projected vote now stands at 49.53% Democratic and 47.43% Republican, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

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But Schraa is absorbed into the 55th district with Rep. Nate Gustafson, R-Fox Crossing, and both intend to run for office. Now, there is no incumbent in the 53rd district.  

Additionally, Burden said Wisconsin’s partisan balance will become more competitive over time once the new maps go through two election cycles. 

“There's gonna be a lot of new blood in the Legislature, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing,” he said. “I think that will change how Republicans in the state Legislature operate.” 

The Assembly is now competitive, but Republicans have a slight advantage

The previous legislative maps allowed Republicans to secure overwhelming majorities in both chambers despite the Wisconsin electorate’s near-even partisan split

In the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic candidates received 53% of the statewide vote but won only 36 of the 99 Assembly seats. 

The maps recently passed by the Legislature and signed by Evers better reflect the state’s political environment and give both parties a good chance of taking control, Burden said.

However, Republicans still enjoy a slight advantage due to the geographic distribution of their voters. Republican voters are generally spread out throughout suburban and rural regions of the state, while Democratic voters are more concentrated in densely populated urban areas. 

This geographic advantage translates to the legislative maps containing more Democratic-leaning swing districts than Republican-leaning swing districts. As a result, Republicans will have an easier time flipping these swing districts to take the majority in a favorable political environment. 

“If Republicans have stronger candidates on average or it's just a good year for Republicans, I think there's more upside for Republicans in the maps,” Burden said. “There's a better chance of them winning a bigger majority, and it would be harder for Democrats to get very far above half the seats.”

Democrats are unlikely to take control of the Senate in 2024

Since the Senate has staggered four-year terms, 17 of the 33 Senate seats will not be up for reelection until 2026. Senators in odd-numbered districts will serve out their terms until 2026 under the previous legislative maps, while Senators in even-numbered districts will run for reelection this year under the new maps. 

As a result, it will take two election cycles before experts and candidates fully understand how the Senate maps will play out on the ground, Burden said. 

It also means Democrats face an uphill battle to take control of the Senate in 2024, as approximately half of all senators will be holdovers from the previous maps after the election, according to Burden.

Democrats need to pick up a net total of seven Senate seats to gain a majority. Of the 17 seats up for reelection in 2024, seven are held by a Republican, four are held by a Democrat and five are open seats. 

Legislative races could get much more expensive

With fewer incumbents to scare away challengers, more competitive seats and control of the Legislature in play, Burden said he expects “more expensive and more active campaigns this year than we've seen in a long time.”

“Because Democrats sense there's a chance they could win the majority, they will want to spend more,” he said. “Because Republicans will be in fear that they might lose their majority, they will want to spend more.”

Much of state parties’ efforts in the Assembly are likely to be concentrated in 15-20 key swing districts located primarily outside of smaller cities such as Eau Claire, La Crosse and Green Bay. 

Joe Oslund, Democratic Party of Wisconsin spokesperson, told the Cardinal in a statement Wisconsin Democrats plan to focus on operating a year-round organizing program to build and engage relationships with communities across the state. 

"We'll also be expanding our hiring of organizers and investing in cutting edge relational organizing infrastructure, which empowers volunteers to reach out to their own networks to have meaningful conversations about voting,” the statement read. 

Additionally, the Democrats will work closely with their Assembly and Senate leadership to “recruit great candidates and build campaign infrastructures” to compete in the new districts, Oslund said. 

The Republican Party of Wisconsin did not respond to a request for comment. 

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Francesca Pica

Francesca Pica is the city news editor emeritus for The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple municipal elections and is a leading reporter on Madison labor issues. Additionally, she served as a summer intern for The Capital Times and currently serves as a WisPolitics intern. 

Ava Menkes

Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.

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