Apparently that’s the case over at the state Legislature where legislators are hanging up their elected careers and declining to run again.
Recent news reports said nearly 30 incumbent legislators are headed for the door and announced they will retire, won’t seek re-election or are running for another office. That’s a quarter of the 118 lawmakers up for re-election and includes 13 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Assembly and four Republicans and three Democrats in the Senate.
With another couple of leave-takings, lawmakers could tie the record number of defections—32—and that was set in 1942 in the middle of World War II.
No doubt some voters will view this as a good thing—a chance for new blood in the Assembly and Senate chambers and a fresh start.
Perhaps, but others see it as a sad sign of the go-to-the-mat hyper-partisanship that has dominated the state Capitol for years and the harsh animosity between majority Republicans and minority Democrats for more than a decade.
Compromise has become a dirty word in Madison, if it is even uttered at all.
The Democratic exodus this year is perhaps understandable. Republicans have been effective in their election efforts and gained a lock on control of both the Senate and Assembly for a decade and they will likely extend that lock for another 10 years or longer, leaving the Democratic Party to a bit part in state government.
Democrats can’t take much satisfaction in that knowledge, knowing that any—except the most benign legislation that they propose will likely never get a public hearing or make it out of committee and will instead land in the round file at the end of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ desk.
That consigns them to a job of constituent services and feeble protests of Republican initiatives, hardly a satisfying career for a Democrat seeking to shape public policy.
A good share of the blame for that has to go to Gov. Tony Evers and his running feud with GOP lawmakers. That has hardly set the stage for conciliatory legislation and compromise and hasn’t opened any doors for Democrat legislators to advance their issues.
What is remarkable this year is the high number of Republican departures—even as the GOP is eyeing the election ouster of Democrat Gov. Tony Evers, which would give it control of not only the Legislature, but the governor’s office as well—giving Republicans full control of state government. And they might not even have to defeat Evers to do that; Republicans stand on the cusp of securing super-majorities in the Senate and Assembly, which would allow them to override Evers’ vetoes.
The departure of Republican lawmakers—even as they stand on the edge of full control of state government—is fueled in part by a splintering of the GOP between more moderate Republicans and the farther right Trump base, part of which is still demanding the Legislature overturn Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential elections, which they believe was stolen and want election laws tightened.
One of those Republicans headed for the door is 12-year state Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former Chippewa County clerk, who took harsh criticism from her own party for defending local clerks election performance and criticized Speaker Vos for his decision to hire retired state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to investigate the election. That prompted Gableman to call on Bernier to resign.
Bernier said she was ready to quit anyway, but the GOP attacks made her decision easy. “After getting the slings and arrows from people in my own caucus … they came to realize that there was nothing they could say or do or no bill they could write that would make the Trumpians happy.”
Another 12-year Republican lawmaker hanging it up is Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke who decided in January he would not seek another term. Steineke drew criticism from a faction of Assembly Republicans when he, Vos, and other GOP leaders refused to decertify Biden’s election, saying it couldn’t be done.
“There’s a segment of our citizenry that is incredibly frustrated and looking for an outlet and often times elected officials become an outlet for that frustration,” Steineke said.
Not even Speaker Vos—who was referred to as the “shadow governor” only a year or so ago, has been immune from the attacks within his own party. While he appointed Gableman to head up an election probe, they have since had a public falling out as Vos tried to get Gableman to wrap up his job in April—but then extended his contract. Gableman recently appeared at an election reform rally on the Capitol steps featuring many of Vos’ critics during which Vos was called a RINO (Republican in name only) by someone in the crowd. The speaker before Gableman, Adam Steen, who is running against Vos for his Assembly seat, said “RINO is a nice word. I prefer the word ‘treasonous traitor.”’
That’s the state of Wisconsin politics today.
Democrats could soon be mere footnotes in state government, but Republicans have to guard against splintering and may have to accommodate their pro-Trump elements which could drive state government even farther to the right.
It’s a fascinating dynamic that could shape the future of Wisconsin politics for a decade or more.