Prepare for some lame-duck shenanigans, just in case. (Photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr.)
Tony Evers, with help from 38,000 Milwaukee County early voters who deserve a hug from everyone in the state right now, has just barely managed to beat one one of the slipperiest and most ruthless politicians to walk the earth in our lifetime. Incumbent Governor Scott Walker hasn’t yet conceded, and could keep pushing for a recount, but Evers has a decisive if narrow margin. [Update, 1:56 p.m.: Walker conceded.] Perhaps even more surprisingly, Democrat Josh Kaul has declared victory over incumbent Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel.
Wisconsin needed this, and deserves to feel good about it. Even with Republicans holding onto both houses of the state Legislature—brazen gerrymandering pays, kids!—an Evers administration has the opportunity to set out a constructive policy agenda, reinvigorate the Department of Natural Resources and other state regulatory agencies Walker has sabotaged, and at least pause the state’s efforts to humiliate Medicaid and food-stamp recipients with drug testing and expanding work requirements. Plus, as a politician with a public-education background, Evers clearly knows something about building consensus even in more conservative areas of the state and identifying issues that get people to break with rigid ideology. This means he might be able to put some actual pressure on Republican state legislators on at least some specific issues. It’s still an uphill battle from here, but it’s a start.
That said, a harsher reality could set in before Evers actually becomes governor.
Wisconsinites—especially advocacy groups and Democratic legislators—should prepare for a lame-duck Walker. Republican leadership in the Legislature can send Walker some bills to sign in the last weeks of his term aimed at solidifying a far-right policy agenda and limiting the powers Evers would exercise as governor, and maybe the powers that Kaul would exercise as AG.
This is speculation, but Republicans have given us good reason to brace for exactly this sort of underhanded power-grab.
For one, there’s recent precedent for Republicans doing this in state government. When Democrat Roy Cooper beat incumbent Republican North Carolina governor Pat McCrory in 2016, McCrory and Republican state legislators quickly enacted legislation that limited the governor’s ability to appoint state officials. This rolled back some previous Republican efforts to expand executive power and political patronage in state government. Walker has done a lot of that in his two terms, and Republicans can’t be happy about the kind of people Evers would likely appoint to lead state agencies, not to mention his appointments for the UW System’s Board of Regents.
Second, Walker has built his entire political legacy around acts of government by surprise—chiefly Act 10, the 2011 union-busting bill on which he did not campaign during his 2010 run. Isthmus columnist Alan Talaga wrote before the election that this very tendency might have hurt Walker in his bid for a third term. More recently, Walker and Republican legislators have continued to demonstrate a willingness to remake government on the fly. In March, for instance, they attempted a last-minute rewrite of state election laws after a Dane County judge ordered Walker to call two legislative special elections he had tried to put off. In that case, Walker eventually relented, but rinky-dink shit like this is how he governs. Basically, Walker will tinker with anything that happens to threaten him or Republicans at any given time. If Walker wants a recount of Tuesday’s results, he’ll have to pay for it himself, because of new recount restrictions he himself signed into law after the state’s 2016 recount.
The state Legislature is not currently in session, but the Governor can call a special session at any time. In fact, he already has called one for later this month so that legislators can weigh incentives for paper-products giant Kimberly-Clark to keep its operations in Wisconsin open. Nothing’s keeping them from also bringing up totally unrelated legislation during that session as well. And even though Republicans will have a majority in the next session anyway, why wouldn’t they take an opportunity to make it easier on themselves? It’s not like Republican voters will punish them for it. No amount of corrupt or authoritarian behavior is going to turn off anyone who still supported the GOP as of Tuesday night.
On a purely strategic level, Republicans have been quicker than Democrats to realize that state governments are actually hugely important. Republicans want as much power as they can get, and they’ll take it, and appeals to reason, decency, and the rule of law aren’t going to stop them. I’m sure Robin Vos would do some kind of song-and-dance about how necessary and politically legitimate the changes are, because it’s just not Wisconsin politics if Robin Vos isn’t constantly being a horse’s ass. Evers said on Tuesday night that he looks forward to working with Vos. That’s an obvious lie because no one likes Robin Vos—dude starts crazy text fights with his closest allies. More importantly, Vos has every reason to make Evers’ tenure as governor difficult.
Celebrate, breathe that sigh of relief, let yourself nurse that little ember of schadenfreude for dealing a blow to Scott Walker’s political career, aka the one thing Scott Walker truly cares about. You’ve earned it. But keep your guard up, because Wisconsin Republicans probably aren’t done screwing us.