The Wisconsin GOP has done an incredible job of turning what was once a very-competitive state, at the state and local level, into one of the most partisan and undemocratic states in the country. The reason? Gerrymandering.
How We Got Here
Republicans operatives launched a plan in the wake of their massive electoral losses in the 2008 elections to try and put themselves in position to control state governments and the House of Representatives for the next decade. It was called Operation REDMAP.
The goals of the operation were relatively simple: The party that’s just been on the receiving end of a loss in a Presidential Election, no matter how large, typically does much better in the next federal election. This usually results in them gaining seats in the Senate and House, and has often resulted in the opposition party gaining majorities in one or both chambers of Congress. This election is referred to as the mid-term election because it’s the election that is held at what is essentially the mid-point of a President’s term.
The GOP, however, didn’t just plan on using the typical backlash to a president in a mid-term to their advantage to try and flip control of the House. They planned to create a wave election that would sweep them into control of several state governorships and state legislatures as well.
To create that wave election, Republicans relied on billionaires like the Koch brothers to help prop up their organization and opposition efforts. The Koch Brothers spent millions of dollars helping fund Tea Party organizations in 2010, as well as Political Action Committees and other groups on the right. In total, they spent over $125 million on the race.
The Kochs also funded and provided the Republicans with something called the “Themis Trust” program which provided voter data that their organizations had gathered to Republican groups. All of this set up Republicans to win.
Getting control of states, more than taking back control of one or both chambers of Congress, was the main aim of Republican efforts. That’s because 2010 was a Census year.
At the beginning of every decade, the federal government conducts a Census, which is essentially a survey of the country that everyone is required to fill out, that gives the federal government information on the population of the country. The information they obtain from this Census is then used by the federal government and Congress to determine how federal resources are to going to be allocated. It’s also used as a way to apportion the number of seats in the House, and the number Electoral College votes that each state will have for the next ten years.
After the Census is finished, states are required by law to redraw district lines at the state and federal level to comply with Constitutional requirements that each district must contain around the same number of people within its borders as the other districts the state has.
If Republicans could win back control of a majority of state legislatures and governor’s offices in the 2010 midterm elections, they would be in a position to draw extremely tilted legislative maps that could give them an seemingly permanent majority in those states regardless of how many votes they lost by in a given election. This tactic is what is known as gerrymandering.
The Republican gamble worked. Republicans flipped 63 seats in the House of Representatives in 2010, giving them a massive majority in the House. Just as importantly, they flipped six governorships in their favor (giving them control of 29 governorships entering 2011 compared to 20 for Democrats), and won almost 700 state legislative seats across the country, which included flipping control of state legislatures in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
After their wins, Republicans did at the state level what they envisioned they would be able to do before the election: rig legislative districts for the House and their states in their favor.
How has Gerrymandering Affected Us?
The Republican gerrymanders that took place after 2010 are still being felt across the country today, especially here in Wisconsin. 2018 election results in particular reflected just how damaging their gerrymander was here.
In the 2018 mid-term elections, Democrats won every statewide race on the ballot, including winning control of the governor’s mansion for the first time this decade. However, Democrats failed to gain more than one solitary seat in the State Assembly despite winning the total votes cast in those elections by about 8% (54%-46%).
The one seat gained despite a massive victory in the votes cast doesn’t come anywhere close to explaining just how bad things were. Republicans still held a 63-36 majority in the State Assembly after last fall’s elections. That’s 64% of the seats in the chamber being held by Republicans despite the fact they LOST the total votes cast in the State Assembly last fall by about 8%.
Republicans, of course, have criticized this measure as being unfair to them since they did not run some candidates in State Assembly districts that Democrats won last year. They point out that this skews the total votes cast in state legislative races.
Let’s look at the governor’s race then. Tony Evers won the governor’s race last fall over Republican Scott Walker by just over 1%. Despite losing statewide, Scott Walker still won 63 of the 99 State Assembly Districts in the state. That’s the same amount of seats that Republicans currently hold in the State Assembly.
Overall, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s analysis after the 2018 elections found that 64 of the 99 districts in the State Assembly in our state are currently MORE REPUBLICAN than the state as a whole.
The Republican gerrymander has shifted the required votes that Democrats would have to win by in order to flip control of the chamber to almost unreachable levels in a polarized state. Democrats already had to win the statewide vote by about 2-3% under the pre-2010 maps to win a bare majority in the chamber. Now, Democrats would have to win by ” closer to 9 or 10 points statewide to have a good shot at winning an Assembly majority.” Only ” five of 99 Assembly races” in our state “were decided by less than 5 points” last fall. “Only two were decided by less than 3 points.”
In order to flip control of the chamber, Democrats would have to win “at least 14 seats that Walker carried, including nine he carried by more than 5 points” just to get to bare majority of 50 seats in the chamber next fall.
What does all of this mean? Democrats would basically have to replicate Tammy Baldwin’s 11% statewide win at the State Assembly level just to win a bare majority in the chamber. Even then, Senator Baldwin only won 55 of the 99 assembly districts in her re-election campaign last fall, despite winning by the largest margin statewide of any candidate in this state this decade.
Republicans are Essentially Unaccountable to the Voters Because of Gerrymandering
It comes as no surprise, then, that Republicans in the State Legislature are basically ignoring the will of the voters at almost every opportunity. Because they don’t have to worry about losing in a general election because of the way their districts were drawn, Republicans in the State Legislature are only listening to the concerns of Republican voters instead of the concerns of every person in this state. That’s created a State Legislature that represents the views of an increasingly small and extreme section of voters.
Republicans responded to their loss last fall by passing power grab legislation that essentially stripped the incoming governor and attorney general of their powers. The Wisconsin Examiner recently discovered that many Republicans in the legislature received thousands of contacts from their constituents while that legislation was pending telling them to vote against the bill.
Despite the legislature receiving over 40,000 total contacts from voters saying they were opposed to the bill, or 98% of all people who contacted them, the Republicans pushed ahead with their power grab anyway. They passed legislation that only 2% of the people contacting the legislature said they supported. We’re still feeling the effects of that bill today.
The Republicans in the State Legislature are also ignoring voters when it comes to some of the policies that voters want to see us enact. They’ve blocked the Medicaid expansion in our state despite a vast majority of voters saying that they want it and significant evidence showing that opting us into the expansion would help our state.
It also appears that basic gun control legislation won’t be taken up by them either, despite massive public support for basic things like expanding background checks, or creating red flag laws that would temporarily take guns out of the hands of those who pose an immediate danger to the public.
What Wisconsin has right now isn’t a democracy. It’s a democracy in name only. We may maintain the appearance of free and fair elections (more on this to come), but as the gerrymandering data shows, Republicans have completely destroyed the principle of one-person one-vote that a well-functioning democracy depends on.
We are a state that is controlled at the State Legislative level by a minority party that is striving to impose a one-party authoritarian government on the rest of us. Republicans know they can’t win on competitive and fair maps. Gerrymandering themselves into safe seats is the only way they can insure that they hold power. It’s why they’re rigging the rules of the game to do just that.
We must do everything we can to vote them out of office next fall, and get non-partisan redistricting passed. We must also make sure that we are focused on control of the State Supreme Court since they could decide the legislative maps if the state legislature cannot agree on redistricting. One of those conservative judge’s seats is up this coming April.
The stakes are enormous. The future of our state may hinge on what we do in the elections next year. Let’s restore democracy in Wisconsin!