In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republicans are responding to their loss of top statewide offices in last month’s elections by rapidly trying to undercut the Democrats about to take office. The gambit seems straight out of North Carolina, where Republicans used the lame-duck session after the 2016 elections to limit the power of the incoming Democratic governor in what one top Democrat called a “legislative coup”—and largely got away with it.
The Wisconsin legislature could vote as soon as Tuesday to limit the ability of Tony Evers, the incoming Democratic governor, to run state agencies and intervene in litigation without approval from the Republican-controlled legislature. Evers defeated two-term incumbent Governor Scott Walker in a closely fought election last month, ending years of one-party rule in Wisconsin. The proposals under consideration would also strip power from the incoming Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul.
Evers vowed to fight the proposals, and Democrats were already raising the possibility of lawsuits challenging the legislation if it became law. “It clearly invalidates what the people of Wisconsin expected,” Evers, the state superintendent of schools, told reporters on Friday. “It is an embarrassment.”
Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin told me on Monday that the GOP effort to kneecap the incoming governor was “more becoming of a Third World country than the state of Wisconsin.”
“They saw what happened in North Carolina. They’re clearly trying to duplicate that,” said Pocan, a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who served for years in the state legislature before winning his seat representing Madison in Congress.
The Michigan GOP proposals did not go as far and were not moving quite as fast as those in Wisconsin, but they would similarly shift power to intervene in litigation from the governor’s and attorney general’s offices to the legislature, where Republicans maintain a majority. Democrat Gretchen Whitmer captured the governorship last month after Republican Rick Snyder ran the state for two terms. Democrats also won the offices of attorney general and secretary of state, and another lame-duck GOP proposal would move campaign-finance authority from the secretary of state to a six-person bipartisan commission, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Among the GOP proposals in Wisconsin is an attempt to slice early voting to just two weeks from as many as six. And Republicans would change the date of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary in what Democrats said was an obvious attempt to lower turnout for a separate state-supreme-court election scheduled for the same day.
The limits on the power of the governor and attorney general to decide whether the state signs on to—or removes itself from—litigation is clearly aimed at Evers’s and Kaul’s pledge to take Wisconsin out of a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurers cover people with preexisting conditions. “The core promise of the winning candidates for governor and attorney general would be blocked by this power grab,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org.
Wikler spoke to me by phone from a packed hearing room at the state capitol in Madison, where legislators were considering a 141-page plan that was unveiled only on Friday. After a lengthy hearing Monday afternoon, the state Assembly and Senate could vote on the package on Tuesday. Wikler said the hearing and two overflow rooms were filled with opponents of the GOP plan, and hundreds “if not thousands” more were expected to demonstrate on the steps outside.
But without a majority in either legislative chamber, Democrats were powerless to stop the bills on their own. “There’s a small chance to beat it back,” Pocan told me, “but the likelihood is they have the votes unless people really are heard.”
Robin Vos, the Republican speaker of the Assembly, defended the moves on a local radio show as ensuring “that each of the branches [of government has] an opportunity to negotiate at the table equally.” But he did not explain why GOP legislators did not feel a need to beef up their authority while Walker was in office, and he made clear that lawmakers wanted to prevent Evers from undermining state laws implementing voter-ID rules and work requirements for Medicaid. Vos acknowledged that the legislature should have acted earlier to move the presidential primary, but he said the change was not aimed at securing a conservative seat on the Supreme Court but rather at separating nonpartisan local elections from the all-consuming White House contest.
It’s not uncommon for a party on the cusp of losing power to use its final days in office to pass significant legislation even after voters have rendered their verdict. In 2010, congressional Democrats ended the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gay people serving in the military during the lame-duck session after voters had elected a Republican majority in the House weeks earlier. But until recently, it has been rarer for a party to act so punitively toward its opponents after a defeat.
“The North Carolina precedent suggests a dangerous trend: Republican legislatures, even in defeat, reaching out from the political grave to pull the democratically elected victors down with them,” Wikler told me.
The legislation in both Wisconsin and Michigan must win the approval of Walker and Snyder, respectively, and there is some question as to whether either governor would want to weaken the powers of his own office on the way out the door. Neither Republican has weighed in on the legislative proposals. “Governor Snyder is not taking a position on these bills until he has them on his desk and can review the final versions,” Jordan Kennedy, a spokesman, told me.
And if the North Carolina precedent holds, the last word would go to the courts. Some of the laws Republicans passed after the 2016 election remain in legal limbo. Democrats also believe that the GOP paid a political price for its aggressive maneuvering this year, when the party lost its supermajority in the state legislature. “Ultimately, it’s going to be self-sabotage,” predicted Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.
In Wisconsin, Evers suggested that the legislature’s actions were evidence of a party that had not come to grips with its own defeat. “The entire package is an effort on the part of the Republican majority to take us back to November 6 and hopefully change that result,” the Democrat told reporters. “It’s not going to change. I’m here, and Tony Evers is going to be governor in a few short weeks.”
That much is clear. How much power Evers will have when he claims the office he won, however, remains in doubt.