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In GOP's post-election power grabs, experts see 'disturbing' trend

"Once you start down the path of diluting, obviating, nullifying the results of an election, it’s very hard to pull back from that," one political analyst said.
Image: Protesters in Madison, Wisconsin
Protesters Peppi Elder, left, and Christine Taylor hold up signs during the state Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the state Capitol Rotunda on Dec. 4, 2018, in Madison, Wisconsin.Steve Apps / AP

Two years after North Carolina first used a special legislative session to pass a series of bills limiting the powers of its incoming Democratic governor, GOP legislators in Wisconsin and Michigan followed suit, pushing through sweeping changes to the governor's power, the judiciary, and voter access after key midterm losses.

Now, independent state government experts and political scientists warn that such power grabs foretell what could become a worrisome partisan trend: election nullification.

"I do think that once you do see a number of states move in this direction, if they have any level of success, we’re going to see more of them try to do it. And it’s very disturbing to me," Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, told NBC News. "Once you start down the path of diluting, obviating, nullifying the results of an election, it’s very hard to pull back from that."

Both national and statewide experts said they had never seen such efforts like the ones in Wisconsin and Michigan before — and that the GOP actions indicate a new level of toxicity has arrived in state government.

"Until recently, no party has tried to hamstring their opponents' future power to the way the Republicans are doing it now," John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, told NBC News, adding, "They are a bad sign that state politics is being infected by the toxic national political environment."

The Republican lame-duck efforts follow the election of Democrats Tony Evers and Josh Kaul as governor and attorney general in Wisconsin, and Democrats Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel, and Jocelyn Benson as governor, attorney general, and secretary of state, respectively, in Michigan.

Republicans in those two states, like North Carolina entering the 2016 elections, currently hold what is known as a “trifecta” — control of the governor's mansion as well as both branches of the state legislature. Although the GOP in both states will soon lose the governor's office, the party remains in control of the statehouses, which has allowed it to move forward with the disputed legislation during the lame-duck session before the Democrats are sworn in next year.

In Michigan, Republicans moved to usurp the secretary of state's power to oversee campaign finance issues and instead pass that authority on to an independent commission, while Republicans in Wisconsin have passed bills such as one that would require legislative approval before the governor could make changes to programs like welfare.

In both states, GOP legislators seek to curb the ability of the newly elected governors and attorneys general to determine the state's position in court cases.

Furious Democrats have vowed to fight back, while protesters have descended on both state capitols to condemn the efforts.

"They represent a new level of political chicanery, mostly legal but deeply disrespectful of political norms and traditions," Chamberlin said.

Conservative lawmakers in each state have insisted the efforts are not part of a power grab, even as some have expressed disdain for the liberal leanings of the incoming administrations. As the conservative Commentary Magazine pointed out, the efforts are not entirely unprecedented in U.S. history.

But it is clear to experts that the playbook has begun to shift.

Dennis Dresang, professor emeritus of public affairs and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the moves defy his state's long history of deferring to incoming officials — even those in the opposite party — after elections.

"In the 1970s and ‘80s, for example, vacancies have explicitly been left open so the newly elected governor [of a different party] could fill them,” Dresang said. “When Scott Walker was elected governor in 2010, his predecessor, [Democrat] Jim Doyle, did not proceed with a grant of $810 million from the federal government for high speed rail because during the campaign Walker said he opposed the project."

What’s changed since the situation Dresang recalled in 2010 is the introduction of "intense polarization" and "an erosion of certain norms," according to Rick Hasen, chancellor's professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, which could have something to do with President Donald Trump.

"It’s hard to know how much Trump is the cause or the effect, but certainly there’s been a lot of norm erosion in terms of how we function in our democracy," Hasen said in an interview.

And while Republicans are leading the way, Democrats may well follow.

"I think that the attitude has become a win at any cost attitude on the part of some Republicans and they are seeking to squeeze every last ounce of power out of what they can do and I expect that Democrats, when given the chance, are going to be more apt to do something like this if faced with a similar situation," Hasen added.

Ornstein, who for years has argued that the modern Republican party is broken, agreed: “It’s hard if one party is doing it for the other party not to say that they’re going to do it, as well.”

Outgoing Republican Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Snyder of Michigan have yet to sign the legislative proposals that have passed their state legislative branches, and some of the bills, if signed, are certain to trigger legal challenges — just as they did in North Carolina.

But even if lame-duck legislation in Michigan and Wisconsin is eventually thrown out in courts, experts say it will dominate incoming officials' agenda and curb their ability to accomplish other goals.

“Some of it is going to be to put Democratic governors in a position where they are not only weakened but need to devote their time and attention to fighting these attempts to limit their power and control,” Hasen said.

Meanwhile, all three states where lawmakers have passed legislation to undermine political opponents in the wake of an election share another distinction: Each state has some of the most gerrymandered legislative maps in the nation, all favoring Republicans, which experts say is critical to understanding how the power grabs were made possible.

For example, Wisconsin Republicans won 63 of the 99 state assembly seats last month despite winning fewer than half of the Badger State's votes.

"These districts are so divided, so safe Democrat or safe Republican," Doyle, the former Democratic governor of Wisconsin who deferred to Walker on issues after his election, told NBC News. "That means that you have this phenomenon where the legislatures are playing to their bases and not to the middle. And I think everybody who looks at what’s happening with our current situation in legislatures — and in Congress — would say that’s the cause of the problem."

Doyle said he suspects that Republican legislators' fury over Evers is at least in part about redistricting. Following the 2020 Census, Republican legislators will have to work with the Democratic governor on redrawing Wisconsin's voting maps, ensuring that both parties must either agree, or leave them to the courts to draw.

“These Republican legislators, they’re going to have to negotiate with a Democratic governor. That can only be good," he said. "It’s a very different world they’re in right now."