Wisconsin Republicans Stand on the Verge of Total, Veto-Proof Power

 

FRANKS FIELD, Wis. — The three counties in Wisconsin’s far northwest corner make up one of the last patches of rural America that have remained loyal to Democrats through the Obama and Trump years.

But after voting Democratic in every presidential election since 1976, and consistently sending the party’s candidates to the State Legislature for even longer, the area could now defect to the Republican Party. The ramifications would ripple far beyond the shores of Lake Superior.

If Wisconsin Democrats lose several low-budget state legislative contests here on Tuesday — which appears increasingly likely because of new and even more gerrymandered political maps — it may not matter who wins the $114 million tossup contest for governor between Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, and Tim Michels, a Republican. Those northern seats would put Republicans in reach of veto-proof supermajorities that would render a Democratic governor functionally irrelevant.

Even though Wisconsin remains a 50-50 state in statewide elections, Democrats would be on the verge of obsolescence.

 

“The erosion of our democratic institutions that Republicans are looking to take down should be frightening to anyone,” said John Adams, a Democratic candidate for the State Assembly from Washburn, on the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. “When you start losing whole offices in government, I don’t know where they’re going to stop.”

 

This rural corner of Wisconsin — Douglas, Bayfield and Ashland Counties — has become pivotal because it has three Democratic-held seats that Republicans appear likely to capture; two in the Assembly and one in the State Senate. Statewide, the party needs to flip just five Assembly districts and one in the Senate to take the two-thirds majorities required to override a governor’s veto.

That outcome — “terrifying,” as Melissa Agard, a Democratic state senator and the leader of the party’s campaign arm in the chamber, described it — would clear a runway for Republican state legislators to follow through on their promises to eliminate the state’s bipartisan elections commission and take direct control of voting procedures and the certification of elections.

 

Wisconsin is not the only state facing the prospect of a Democratic governor and veto-proof Republican majorities in its legislature.

 

North Carolina Republicans, who also drew a gerrymandered legislative map, need to flip just three seats in the State House and two in the State Senate to be able to override vetoes by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas, a Democrat in a tight contest for re-election, already faces veto-proof Republican majorities, as do the Democratic governors of deep-red Kentucky and Louisiana.

Wisconsin Republicans, who have had a viselike grip on the Legislature since enacting the nation’s most aggressive gerrymander after their 2010 sweep of the state’s elections, make no apologies for pressing their advantage to its limits. Mr. Michels, the party’s nominee for governor, told supporters this week, “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.”

Former Representative Reid Ribble, a Republican who served northeastern Wisconsin, said, “There’s a lot of complaining about gerrymandered House or State Assembly seats, and there’s some truth to that.”

But he added: “At the end of the day, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a district in rural Wisconsin that would elect a Democrat right now.”

Republican control of the Wisconsin Legislature is so entrenched that party officials now use it as a campaign tactic. Craig Rosand, the G.O.P. chairman in Douglas County, said that because Democrats had so little influence at the State Capitol, voters who want a say in their government should elect Republicans.

 

“The majority caucus always determines what passes,” he said. “Having a representative that’s part of the majority gets them in the room where the decisions are made.

Of Wisconsin’s 33 State Senate seats, 17 are on the ballot on Tuesday, including two Democratic-held districts that President Donald J. Trump carried in 2020. The picture is similarly bleak for Democrats in the State Assembly, where President Biden, who won the state by about 20,000 votes, carried just 35 of 99 districts.

“When you can win a majority of voters and have close to a third of the seats, it’s not true democracy,” said Greta Neubauer, the Democratic leader in the State Assembly. “We are very much at risk of people deciding that it’s not worthwhile for them to continue to engage because they see how rigged the system is against the people of the state in favor of Republican politicians.”

As former President Barack Obama campaigned for Wisconsin Democrats on Saturday in Milwaukee, he addressed the implications of Republican supermajorities in the Legislature.

“If they pick up a few more seats in both chambers, they’ll be able to force through extreme, unpopular laws on everything from guns to education to abortion,” Mr. Obama said. “And there won’t be anything Democrats can do about it.”

The Republican leaders in the Wisconsin Legislature say they will bring back all 146 bills Mr. Evers has vetoed during his four years in office — measures on elections, school funding, pandemic mitigation efforts, policing, abortion and the state’s gun laws — if they win a supermajority or if Mr. Michels is elected. Mr. Evers warned of “hand-to-hand combat” to find moderate Republican legislators to sustain vetoes if he is re-elected with a G.O.P. supermajority.

 

“Katy, bar the door,” Mr. Evers said Thursday during an interview on his campaign bus in Ashland. “They’re going to shove all this stuff down our throat and it’s going to happen quickly and before anybody can pay attention. It could be bad.”

Mr. Evers predicted that Democrats would be able to narrowly sustain veto power in the Assembly. The State Senate, he said, is “tougher.”

In northwest Wisconsin, the three incumbent Democratic legislators decided against running for re-election under new, more Republican-friendly maps. Under the old maps, Mr. Biden carried each of the districts, which are home to large numbers of unionized workers in paper mills, mines and shipyards. Under the new lines Republicans adopted last year, Mr. Trump would have won them all.

Kelly Westlund, a Democrat running for the State Senate here, spent Wednesday morning going up and down the long driveways of rural homes 15 miles south of Superior. It was grueling door-to-door outreach that illustrated the difficulty of introducing herself to voters as a new candidate in a new district that includes three media markets.

“You don’t find a whole lot of folks here that are super jazzed about Joe Biden,” Ms. Westlund said. “But you do find people that understand there’s a lot at stake.”

Her pitch included warnings about what would happen if Republicans flip her seat and claim a supermajority. Few of the voters she met knew much about the candidates for the Legislature — but they did express strong feelings about the national parties.

“The Democrats have to own up to a certain amount of things that are going on now,” said John Tesarek, a retired commercial floor installer who would not commit to voting for Ms. Westlund. “I’m not totally certain I’m hearing them own up to much.”

 

The picture wasn’t much different during early voting at the city clerk’s office in Superior.

Ann Marie Allen, a hospital janitor, said she had voted for Mr. Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the Democrat challenging Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican. But she said she had also backed Ms. Westlund’s Republican opponent, Romaine Quinn, because she liked that he had his toddler son in his commercials. Mr. Quinn has spent eight times as much on TV ads as Ms. Westlund has.

“There was no smut in his ads,” Ms. Allen said. “You know how they cut down on other people? There wasn’t that much of that.”

Chad Frantz, a plumber, said he had voted a straight Republican ticket.

“I’ve been watching the Democrats bash every Republican,” he said. “They’ve been trying to make out every guy that’s a Republican running for a position into a male chauvinist pig.”

Mayor Jim Paine of Superior, a Democrat, said Republicans were capitalizing on “fissures” in local Democratic politics between union workers and environmentalists.

“Labor and the environment are both very important, but it’s leading to very real challenges,” Mr. Paine said. “They’re breaking up. That’s why you see more Republicans getting elected.”

The Republicans likely to head to Madison are far different from their Democratic predecessors.

Nick Milroy, a moderate Democrat, won seven terms in the Assembly and ran unopposed for a decade until he was re-elected in 2020 by just 139 votes. His old district was Democratic in presidential years; Mr. Trump carried the new one by two percentage points.

 

The Republican who would replace him is Angie Sapik, a marketing executive. During the Capitol riot in 2021, Ms. Sapik tweeted, “It’s about time Republicans stood up for their rights,” “Rage on, Patriots!” and “Come on, Mike Pence!”

In a brief phone call, Ms. Sapik agreed to an interview, then ended the call and did not respond to subsequent messages.

Her Democratic opponent is Laura Gapske, a Superior school board member who said she had to call the police after receiving threatening calls when advertising that promoted Ms. Sapik’s candidacy included her cellphone number.

Democrats here described an uphill battle against better-funded Republican opponents, with the political atmosphere colored by inflation, concerns about faraway crime and an unpopular president.

They also spoke of the difficulty of spreading their message in what is effectively a news desert.

Mr. Adams, the Assembly candidate, is running in a district Mr. Trump would have carried by four points. Last week, Mr. Adams — an organic farmer who previously worked at small-town newspapers in Minnesota and Montana — drove two hours each way to Rhinelander to be interviewed by a local TV station.

“Because we live in a low-media environment up here, too many of us are getting our cable news and not enough are getting our local news,” he said. “If Fox News is telling the story of Democrats, then we lose.”