Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan Aim to Hobble Incoming Democrats

The GOP’s lame-duck strategy foreshadows a coming political war between urban and rural America.

Wisconsin Governor-elect Tony Evers (Morry Gash / AP)

In both Wisconsin and Michigan, Democrats followed a similar formula last month to win the governorship and other key statewide offices: big turnout in urban centers and gains in white-collar suburbs.

But in each state, Republican dominance of small-town and rural communities—reinforced by a highly partisan gerrymander of legislative district lines—allowed the party to maintain control of both state legislative chambers.

Now both states are embroiled in bitter postelection struggles over a flurry of proposals from the GOP-controlled legislatures to limit the power of the incoming statewide Democratic officials—and to dilute the voting power of the urban-based coalitions that elected them. Wisconsin Republicans passed a sweeping package of such bills early Wednesday morning.

These fights capture the virtual collapse, especially in the Republican Party, of the informal constraints that established boundaries in political combat. In each state, GOP legislators are following the example of North Carolina Republicans, who rushed through similar legislation intended to hobble then-incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper after his election in 2016.

But the sharp, and strikingly consistent, geographic and demographic contrasts between the Republican and Democratic coalitions in Michigan and Wisconsin make clear that these explosive fights are also something more. They represent just the newest front in a larger national confrontation: the struggle between metropolitan and nonmetro America for control of the country’s direction.

The tension between cities and their suburbs, and rural areas has been building for years. But it has exploded under Donald Trump, whose overt appeals to anxiety over economic, cultural, and racial change have debilitated the GOP inside metro America but bolstered it beyond.

November’s election powerfully illustrated that trade-off. The innovative classification system for congressional districts developed by our sister publication CityLab divided House districts into six categories, from most urban to most rural and ranked primarily by their population density. Powered by a strong backlash against Trump, Democrats captured 35 Republican-held House seats in the four most urban categories. By comparison, in the two most rural groupings, where Trump remains much stronger, Democrats achieved a net gain of only five seats. The result is a stunning geographic separation: Democrats now control four-fifths of the 251 seats in the four most urban categories, while Republicans hold four-fifths of the 184 seats in the two most rural.

This same geographic divide is hardening in virtually every state, including Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democrats Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Tony Evers in Wisconsin built their gubernatorial victory primarily on huge margins in bigger cities and advances in the suburban areas around them. (Whitmer won the well-educated, affluent Oakland County outside Detroit by more than 100,000 votes.) But the rural parts of both states still favored the Republican in the governor’s race, especially in Wisconsin.

The same patterns drove state legislative races. With their strength in the biggest population centers, Democrats won more total votes for the Wisconsin State Assembly and both the state House of Representatives and state Senate in Michigan. (Only for the Wisconsin state Senate did the GOP carry a narrow majority.) But because of both the severe gerrymanders that Republicans drew after the 2010 census and the excessive concentration of Democratic votes into urban centers, Republicans maintained the majority of seats in both chambers in both states.

In Michigan, Democrats gained ground in suburban state legislative districts but couldn’t crack the GOP’s rural firewall beyond. “Even in races that people thought might be exceptions to the rural-urban divide, it didn’t turn out that way,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University. Likewise, in Wisconsin, a map of the State Assembly results by Charles Franklin, a law and public-policy professor at Marquette University Law School, shows a blue band of lopsided Democratic advantage from Milwaukee to Madison in an urbanized corridor across the state’s southern border, but moderate to massive Republican leads almost everywhere in the more rural communities further north, except for smaller cities such as Eau Claire and La Crosse. “The Republican base is moving much more from the suburban areas into those rural areas,” precisely as the party’s message is moving “away from traditional Republican politics into Trumpism,” notes Tom Russell, a Madison-based Democratic consultant.

Now the GOP is using its point of greatest leverage in this evolving geographic alignment—state legislative chambers that maximize rural influence—to rush through bills that revoke power from the incoming governors and other statewide officers (including the attorney general in both states) that Democrats elected through their growing urban strength. Simultaneously, legislative Republicans moved to weaken that urban coalition by passing measures Wednesday to reinforce restrictive voting laws in Wisconsin. In Michigan, they are proposing to impair a same-day-voter-registration initiative voters approved last month. Even while losing most votes this year, a rural-centered GOP in each state is checkmating an urban-centered Democratic coalition.

The federal government experienced its own version of this dynamic when a Republican Senate majority rooted in GOP dominance of smaller, rural states (and rural parts of bigger states) used extraordinary tactics to hinder Barack Obama, who won election through lopsided support in big urban areas. (The most glaring example was the GOP’s refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.) It’s easy to imagine similar confrontations recurring if the solidifying Democratic hold on the nation’s largest metropolitan areas enables the party to win back the White House and maintain the House of Representatives in 2020 but Republican rural strength allows it to maintain the Senate.

The naked power grab unfolding in Michigan and Wisconsin shows the urgency many in the GOP feel to block the priorities of a metro-based Democratic coalition that embodies and embraces the big cultural and demographic changes reshaping the country. The determination of a Republican Party rooted in rural America to shred the rule book is likely to only deepen as more population and economic power concentrates into the metropolitan centers hurtling away from the GOP in the Trump era.