December 12, 2018
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
It’s the time of year when myth and legend blur with history and fact, cementing themselves in America’s collective consciousness in a season set aside for belief.
No, not Christmastime. Post-election season. And nowhere has such mythmaking warped rational thought more than in Wisconsin, where the legend of St. Tony the Martyr has eclipsed even that of St. Nicholas.
The Governor-Elect’s authority was most assuredly not compromised in a legislative “power grab” during a “lame-duck session.” Before November’s election, Republicans held a 64-35 majority in the State Assembly and an 18-15 advantage in the State Senate. After the election, they now hold a 63-36 Assembly edge and picked up a seat in the Senate to hold a 19-14 advantage.
These ducks are about as lame as a Maserati as a Christmas gift.
Nor was the Legislature’s move unprecedented. In a true lame-duck session in 2010, Legislative Democrats tried to pass sweeping new union contracts negotiated by outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle before incoming Republican Scott Walker could enact any reforms. Had they succeeded, the new Governor’s entire first-year agenda would have been thwarted.
Democrats in other states, too, have routinely used post-election legislative sessions to hamstring incoming Republican governors. As Commentary Magazine noted, North Carolina Democrats curtailed appointment power every single time a Republican won the Governor’s mansion for two straight decades.
In Illinois, Democrats used a lame-duck session to reduce the term of the state comptroller (a gubernatorial appointment) from four years to two. In New Jersey, lame-duck Democrats approved new legislative maps before the new Republican state legislature could be sworn in.
It is the 2011 redistricting in Wisconsin that has led to the most pernicious myth this season, however, as Democrats have taken to asserting that gerrymandering is the only reason that they did not win control of the legislative branch in addition to the executive.
As proof of this, they point to their success in winning every statewide election (Attorney General, State Treasurer, Secretary of State, and a U.S. Senate seat) as well as their margin of victory in the overall State Assembly vote.
“The biggest obstacle remains gerrymandering. There are only a handful of districts that are remotely competitive,” Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz told The Isthmus. “Gerrymandering doesn’t just have an impact on the outcome. It has an impact on being able to recruit candidates. There aren’t a lot of people willing to run when they know they don’t have a shot.”
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hammered this point home, writing that “G.O.P. legislative control is also undemocratic.”
“Last month Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the votes in State Assembly elections — but they ended up with only 37 percent of the seats,” he asserted. “In other words, Wisconsin is turning into Hungary on the Great Lakes, a state that may hold elections, but where elections don’t matter, because the ruling party retains control no matter what voters do.”
This myth begins as most do—through either a fundamental misunderstanding or intentional distortion of fact.
While it is true that Assembly Democrats received 54 percent of the total number of votes cast in November’s election, 83 percent of Democrats elected to the Assembly faced no Republican challenger.
The GOP either couldn’t find or didn’t bother to field a candidate to run against 30 of the 35 Democratic incumbents who stood for re-election. In contrast, Democrats fielded candidates against 59 of 64 Republicans.
What’s more, incumbent Democrats overwhelmingly represent heavily populated areas of Milwaukee and Madison, meaning that they were able to run up massive vote totals in areas where the GOP didn’t even compete.
In the 30 races in which Republicans didn’t field an Assembly candidate, Democrats racked up a massive 586,810 votes, nearly triple their 200,000 vote advantage in the total vote.
It is, of course, impossible to determine how a race would have gone or how many votes a Republican might have picked up had the GOP run a candidate in even some of those 30 races. But it’s also clear that the discrepancy between Democratic representation in the Assembly and total number of votes cast is not the result of gerrymandering.
Had Republicans in those districts managed a total of just half of the 586,810 uncontested Democratic votes, they would have had 1.39 million total Assembly votes to Democrats’ 1.3 million.
Republicans would thus have received 51.6 percent of the total Assembly votes and won 73 percent of the Assembly seats. But these numbers, too, are deceiving, as they tend to hide an uncomfortable reality for Wisconsin Democrats: with very few exceptions, they can only win in heavily populated urban areas like Madison and Milwaukee because, with very few exceptions, their voters only want to live in heavily populated urban areas like Madison and Milwaukee.
Because of this, even Hintz was forced to admit that Democrats couldn’t win control of the Assembly even if a court—not Republican legislators—drew the legislative maps.
Yet despite this admission and an honest look at 2018 voting numbers, the myth of Wisconsin gerrymandering persists—not because Democrats like Hintz or Democrat apologists like Krugman are interested in telling the truth, but because they need to create a legend to explain why voters outside of big cities keep rejecting them.
They need to perpetuate myths because, after all, ‘tis the season!