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Democrats see a prime opportunity to finally break the GOP’s grip on Wisconsin

With a majority on the high court and new legislative maps on the way, Democrats have their sights set on reversing Republicans’ entrenched advantages in the battleground state.
Photo illustration of Wisconsin state outline filled with yard signs that read "Vote democrat"
Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

In the perennial battleground of Wisconsin, Democrats are having a moment.

Liberals have their first majority on the state Supreme Court in 15 years. New maps will almost certainly eat into Republicans’ long-standing majorities in the state Legislature, and more favorable congressional lines could follow. The party has a strong incumbent in the U.S. Senate who still doesnt have a top-tier Republican challenger heading into her re-election campaign this year and an incumbent governor with consistently solid approval ratings.

As Democratic Gov. Tony Evers put it during his recent State of the State address, “Wisconsin, it’s been one heck of a year.”

At the outset of the election year, Democrats in the critical swing state see a golden opportunity to claw back power from the GOP, which until recently enjoyed an ironclad grip on nearly all levers of state government.

Despite a long history of Midwestern progressivism, Wisconsin emerged as one of the epicenters of the tea party movement in 2010 when Republicans won the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature.

During Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure from 2011 to 2019 — a stretch further aided by a conservative majority on the state’s high court — a GOP trifecta reinvented the state as a national model for conservative policies, including major anti-union measures, concealed-carry legislation, abortion limits and voter-ID laws.

Republicans also wielded that power to redraw maps that cemented their overwhelming majorities in the Legislature, despite an essentially evenly divided state electorate. It’s an imbalance that has continued to resonate even after Evers defeated Walker in 2018, with repeated GOP efforts to halt his power.

But with a favorable state Supreme Court now in hand and political momentum on their side, Democrats have their sights set on finally reversing Republicans’ deeply entrenched advantages.

“This opportunity to have fair maps is going to change a lot of things,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said in an interview.

Walker acknowledged in an interview that new maps and the court could help Democrats “wipe out” his legacy of conservative policies — an outcome he said would be “devastating”— but argued it wasn’t because the state had moved to the left.

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 28, 2019.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2019.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file

Instead, he said the energy felt by state Democrats, and in the state Supreme Court race last year, was “because of Donald Trump,” the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

“He turns people out on the left,” said Walker, referring to both donors and voters. “Trump motivates the left.”

Democrats’ turning tide

Since Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin in the 2016 presidential contest, Democrats (and candidates backed by Democrats) have won 15 of the last 18 statewide races.

The latest victory is likely also the most meaningful. Following the April 2023 win by Janet Protasiewicz, liberals on the technically nonpartisan Supreme Court quickly put their fresh majority to work.

Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz holds hands with Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Rebecca Dallet, left, and and Ann Walsh Bradley at Protasiewicz’s election night party in Milwaukee on Tuesday, April 4, 2023.
Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate Janet Protasiewicz at an election night party in Milwaukee on April 4.Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA Today Network

Almost immediately, they took up a challenge to the state’s GOP-friendly legislative maps and only weeks later ruled them unconstitutional, ordering lawmakers to draw new ones ahead of the 2024 elections.

If more politically competitive maps are implemented, as expected, a more evenly divided Legislature could have the opportunity to pick away at years of conservative laws — and to further reshape policy in the state on issues such as Medicaid expansion, marijuana legalization and paid family leave that Republicans have blocked from advancing.

New maps will also likely shift Republicans further away from a supermajority — the party currently has one in the state Senate and is only two seats short of having one in the state Assembly — and with it, the ability to overturn Evers’ vetoes.

“While we’ve squeaked out some really amazing victories, with narrow margins in many cases, you would think OK, 50% of Wisconsinites vote Democrat and 50% of Wisconsinites vote Republican. How is it that we have a state Legislature that is two-thirds Republican in a state that’s really 50-50?” Baldwin said. “It’s gerrymandering.”

The case over the state legislative maps was the first of many regarding hot-button issues — most notably abortion rights — that are expected to reach the state Supreme Court this term.

And progressives are continuing to try to capitalize on the court’s makeup: A high-profile Democratic law firm recently filed a challenge asking the justices to review the state’s congressional maps as well ahead of the 2024 election. Republicans currently control six of Wisconsin’s eight U.S. House seats.

It’s unlikely — but not impossible — that the court would take the case this year. But Democrats in the state say the turn of events makes it clear that things are changing.

“Over and over, in 2018, 2020, 2022, 2023, Democrats have defeated MAGA Republicans on a statewide level. But the state legislative maps have been so rigged that the GOP held on to power,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler said in an interview. “As a result, many of our state’s policies, like the GOP’s refusal to expand Medicaid, make Wisconsin look bright red.”

“But now, because there’s a progressive Supreme Court majority, and the maps have been declared unconstitutional, we’re about to have the first unrigged election to our state Legislature in 13 years,” Wikler added.

Republican malaise

Wisconsin Republicans have struggled to counter Democrats’ recent momentum.

Following Protasiewicz’s Supreme Court win, many Republicans, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, have responded with threats to impeach her — calls some were making even before she was sworn in to the bench.

GOP lawmakers have continued to pursue policies that primarily appeal to their base, moving forward with bills in recent weeks that would restrict abortion and curtail voting rights.

Assembly Republicans passed a bill that would create a referendum asking voters whether the state should ban abortions at 14 weeks of pregnancy — despite a sure veto by Evers and the issue serving as a political liability for the party as of late.

Abortion restrictions were at the center of conservative candidate Dan Kelly’s loss in the state Supreme Court race to Protasiewicz last year. And a November Marquette University Law School poll showed that 57% of registered voters in the state opposed the Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, while polling from the school earlier in the year showed that 66% said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Infighting has also plagued Wisconsin Republicans. Trump supporters in the state last month launched an effort to recall Vos, pointing to his refusal to advance efforts to impeach the state’s top elections official. Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe has been the target of conspiracy theories and threats by election deniers.

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos talks to the media on Feb. 15, 2022, in Madison.
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos talks to the media in Madison in 2022.Andy Manis / AP file

And at the federal level, Baldwin does not yet face a serious GOP opponent in a race Republicans had once indicated would be a strong pickup opportunity for the party. Businessman Eric Hovde, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2012, is expected to enter the race soon after Reps. Mike Gallagher and Tom Tiffany passed on bids.

That current state of affairs has raised questions among some Wisconsin Republicans over the direction of the party.

Walker said intraparty battles and a focus on abortion restrictions were hurting the state GOP, and he encouraged them to hone their message.

“Any time we’re not talking about the economy, it’s a lost opportunity,” the former governor said. “They’ve got to have that discipline. Don’t give people reasons not to vote for them.”

Brandon Scholz, a GOP strategist in Wisconsin, added that Democrats “are going to get redistricting, abortion and reversals of what the conservative court accomplished. They’re going to have more Democrats in the Legislature.”

“What’s the Wisconsin GOP doing to bring back the voters they have lost?” Scholz said. “It can’t be business as usual.”

The malaise in some GOP circles in Wisconsin doesn’t rise to the level of dysfunction that Republican parties have seen in recent months in other swing states. The chair of the Arizona GOP resigned last month amid bribery accusations involving U.S. Senate candidate Kari Lake, while the chair of the Michigan Republican Party has refused to accept a vote to oust her.

But it still makes for an inauspicious look for the party in a state that will again be pivotal in the upcoming presidential election.

Responding to questions about how the state party intended to combat the recent string of Democratic successes in the state, Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Brian Schimming said that “Democrats have failed the American people.”

“Whether it be the White House or statehouse, Republicans are committed to earning and honoring the trust of Wisconsinites with common sense policies,” Schimming said in a statement to NBC News.

Biden’s persisting challenges

Republicans in the state have also not been without their own successes in recent years. During the 2022 elections, the GOP flipped a U.S. House seat in western Wisconsin and Sen. Ron Johnson won a third term, in addition to the party maintaining its wide advantages in the state Legislature.

And heading into this fall, the energy surrounding Democrats in Wisconsin doesn’t appear to be translating to President Joe Biden.

Just 42% of registered Wisconsin voters said they approved of the job Biden was doing as president in Marquette’s November poll, while 57% said they disapproved.

President Joe Biden speaks with iron workers and others near the John A. Blatnik Bridge between Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., on Jan. 25, 2024.
President Joe Biden speaks with ironworkers and others near the John A. Blatnik Bridge between Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., on Jan. 25.Alex Brandon / AP

By comparison, the same poll found that Evers’ approval rating was at 53% (with 46% saying they disapproved of the job he was doing as governor), while 51% of voters said they approved of the job the state Supreme Court was doing (with 43% saying they disapproved).

Only the Wisconsin Legislature fared worse than Biden in the poll, with 40% of respondents saying they approved of the job it was doing and 57% saying they disapproved.

Biden’s marks have raised concerns among Democrats in the state and around the country. The White House seems to have taken notice as well. Last month, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen trekked to the state in three separate visits across five days.

Biden emphasized infrastructure during his trip, while Harris talked up abortion rights and Yellen touted the strength of the economy — all crucial issues that Wikler and Baldwin said would help Biden win the state in November.

Wikler said those issues dovetailed with the latest successes by state Democrats — and could provide a boost up and down the ballot this fall.

“Democrats have a chance not just to be there to provide the victory-clinching Electoral College votes and the majority-determining U.S. Senate seat,” he said. “They also have a chance, depending on the map lines, to make historic gains in the state Legislature and begin unrigging a system that Republicans created to ensure their total control.”