Reasons for the GOP's Capitol power play

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THERE are many explanations for last week's power play by Republicans that trampled Democratic lawmakers and took power away from Democratic Governor-Elect Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General-Elect Josh Kaul.

Five of them:

First, Republican legislators knew they could act with impunity, having increased their majority in the Senate and kept 63 seats in the 99-member Assembly after a tough campaign season.

November 2020 will be the last time Republican legislators run in districts they drew in 2011 - districts that have been very, very good to them.

BEFORE Nov. 6, incumbent Republican legislators worried about running in the shadow of an unpopular President and voters' concerns about health care, funding K-12 schools and bad roads.

Republicans also worried that polls gave Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin insurmountable leads over her Republican challenger, State Sen. Leah Vukmir, in the top-of-the-ticket race.

And, when there were signs that more than 500,000 residents - or about one in five - were voting early, Republicans got more nervous.

Instead, voters narrowly ousted two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel. Democrats also won two other statewide offices.

BUT no incumbent Republican legislator lost, which Democrats insisted proved how effectively Republicans had gerrymandered the state in their favor in 2011.

Consider this: If you're a Madison Democrat and mad as hell at the GOP's power grab, is there any way you can punish a Republican legislator for last week's power grab? No.

Why? The only names on your Madison ballot are unopposed Democrats - on Nov. 6 and again in November 2020.

More certain than ever that they will get re-elected in 2020, Republican leaders secretly drafted their package of bills to give the legislative branch more authority at the expense of Evers and Kaul.

SECOND, GOP leaders felt Evers does not have overwhelming statewide support, so they could take him on in a history-making way.

After all, Republicans reasoned, Evers won largely because voters in two counties - Dane and Milwaukee - favored him over Walker by a stunning margin of 288,915 votes.

In an election for governor that drew a record 2.6 million votes, the Evers winning margin of only 29,227 votes was "no mandate," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told his caucus when they met to re-elect him speaker.

Vos is expected to run for governor in 2022.

THIRD, GOP leaders like Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have never considered Evers their political equal in take-no-prisoners Capitol wars. So, they thought he would struggle to offer a quick response to their rewrite of the rules of governing.

After all, Evers had a "Tony too nice" reputation. He served as state superintendent of public instruction since 2009 and, before that, was a school district administrator.

Evers didn't become a Capitol power player until he won the August primary to challenge Walker.

FOURTH, Republican legislators were willing to take their chances in lawsuits expected over how GOP's rebalancing of power between the executive and legislative branches of state government.

"There's going to be litigation," Kaul said.

But state law defines the duties of the attorney general. So, the strongest legal claim may be that the Republicans' changes illegally infringed on the governor's inherent powers.

FIFTH, Republican legislators say, the changes they rammed through the Legislature in a two-day blitz didn't include some of the most radical steps they had considered. That not-so-subtle message is, "It could have been worse."

For example, Republicans dropped the plan to move the 2020 Presidential primary from April to March - a move that Fitzgerald bluntly admitted could have helped re-elect conservative Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly.

Republicans felt Kelly, a Walker appointee to the court, had a better chance of winning re-election in a low-turnout April election in which voters were not picking presidential favorites.

Republicans also considered, but rejected, limiting the governor's broad veto powers.

Republicans also did not attempt to change how new legislative district lines will be drawn after the 2020 Census. Those lines are drawn in a bill that must be approved by the governor.

ONE rumor: Republicans researched whether new districts could be drawn through a joint resolution the Republican-controlled Legislature would pass - a process that would bypass Evers.

That was why, when Republicans finally made public their list of changes, they quickly added: "We didn't touch redistricting."

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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