Scott Walker’s Antics in Wisconsin Are More Important Than You Think

At first glance it seems to be just another radical abuse of power, another line crossed by a Republican Party that seems willing to subvert basic democracy in the service of short-term goals. But look below the surface, and the actions of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the Wisconsin legislature bespeak a far bigger crisis for the Republican Party, with profound consequences for politics not just in Wisconsin but across the country.

First, a bit of background: Wisconsin law demands that if state legislative seats are vacated, the governor must call a special election to fill those seats. But when Scott Walker appointed two sitting Republican legislators to spots in his administration, he refused to call special elections to fill the seats as required. It is widely speculated that Walker refused to call those elections because of Democratic dominance in special elections since Trump’s 2016 victory. Simply put, Walker didn’t want to risk losing Republican-held seats in an environment where Republicans face strong headwinds, so he’s refusing to hold the election entirely, preferring to wait until November when the GOP hopes to have reversed its current misfortunes. When after much wrangling and appeal, the courts ordered Walker to follow the law, Wisconsin Republicans took the extraordinary step of considering passing a law to revise the special election statute post facto before backing down in the end. As of today, Walker and his allies have lost this showdown and will hold the special election in compliance with the law.

So far this has been reported as a simple abuse of power story. But a slightly deeper dig paints a more interesting picture.

Republicans are running scared because Democrats have been turning out for special elections in record numbers, nearly matching their enthusiasm in general elections. Usually, of course, it’s the reverse: Republican voters tend to have much higher turnout than Democrats in off-cycle races, while Democratic voters have higher turnout in November of even years, and of course much higher turnout in presidential years than non-presidential ones. Lately, however, it has been Republicans whose turnout has flagged off cycle. This explains why Walker would want to delay until November: usually it would be Democrats hoping to delay until November in the hope of higher turnout, but this year Republicans are hoping that a bigger ballot will bring out their backers to serve as a breaker against the oncoming blue wave.

But that in theory should be a cyclical and temporary phenomenon. Eventually the pendulum should swing back, and per historical trends the party out of power should regain its enthusiasm once in the minority again: after Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 in the Bush years came the Republican victories of 2010 and 2014 in the Obama years. And Republicans should expect, all else being equal, to hold the advantage with the sort of older established electorate that turns out most frequently in even small elections.

Which means that despite the short-term trends favorable to Democrats, over the longer term it should be in Republican interests to keep holding special elections off-cycle.

So consider what it means that, just to preserve two legislature seats, Republicans were willing to strongly consider switching all off-cycle special elections forward to November. A longer-term view would see this as a disaster for conservatives, giving Democrats a playing field advantage every time a legislative seat was vacated.

One of two things must be true: either Republicans are so scared and desperate that they’re willing to throw the future overboard just to save a few seats today, or–more frighteningly for them–they don’t expect to hold the advantage with the most reliable voters over the long term.

Either way, the story in Wisconsin isn’t just about abuse of power. It’s about a political party that knows if it loses power now, it may never regain it.

That may sound ridiculous in a two-party system, but consider the example of California: once the heartland of Reagan conservatism, the Golden State is so hostile to Republicanism that the party is nearly extinct there. California had its own paroxysm of bigoted backlash against demographic change with Proposition 187 and Governor Pete Wilson, much as the nation at large has done with Donald Trump. It spelled the party’s doom.

Republican leaders can see the end coming, and they know they must keep power at all costs or potentially lose it for good. The evidence is everywhere, but no more obvious than in their tactics in Wisconsin.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.