By Dan Simmons and Felicia Sonmez
MADISON, Wis. — After being defeated at the ballot box last month, Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan are seeking to deny Democrats full control of state government, prompting a public outcry against the attempted power grab by national figures who include potential 2020 candidates Tom Steyer and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In a scene reminiscent of the protests against the anti-union push by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) eight years ago, demonstrators rallied at the state capitol here Monday and repeatedly spoke out during a hearing on the GOP legislative package, which was introduced late Friday and is expected to come up for a vote as early as Tuesday.
“This is a lame-duck session, and here the legislature is abusing power,” state Rep. Katrina Shankland (D) said during the hearing, calling the move “a slap in the face of every voter who voted in record turnout in the midterms.”
State Rep. John Nygren (R) fired back that it was “not true” that the hearing was unprecedented or represented an attack on democracy, prompting boos from several members of the crowd.
“This is not a two-way conversation,” he said, threatening to clear out the room if protesters did not quiet down.
In the hallways outside the hearing room, protesters chanted, “No mas Vos!” and “No more Walker,” referring to State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and the outgoing Republican governor. More than 300 people had signed up to speak at the hearing, which legislative leaders expected to stretch on until late in the night.
The moves in both states have drawn comparisons to Republican efforts in North Carolina in 2016, when lawmakers pushed through legislation limiting the authority of the state’s Democratic governor-elect, triggering a legal battle that resulted in a loss for the Republicans.
In Wisconsin, the far-reaching proposal by Republican lawmakers would weaken the authority of Gov.-elect Tony Evers (D) and state Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, who unseated their Republican opponents last month.
In an exchange with reporters at the governor’s mansion Monday night, Walker described the measures to strip powers from the new administration as simply business as usual. “For all the talk of reining in power, it really doesn’t,” he said.
He added that he “proposed none of this” but declined to say whether he would sign any of the measures. “Depends on what they send me,” Walker told reporters.
He also defended Republican lawmakers against charges they’re violating the will of voters, who elected Democrats as governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.
“Members of the legislature were elected not to a term that ends on Election Day,” he said. “They were elected to a term that ends in January. Just like my term ends in January.”
Among the more controversial parts of the plan are provisions that would limit early voting — which has helped Democrats — restrict Evers’s ability to make appointments and move the Wisconsin 2020 presidential primary to March, a shift that by lessening the turnout for the April 2020 state Supreme Court election would likely boost the chances of conservative judges.
The plan would also take away from the governor the power to withdraw the state from a lawsuit, allowing lawmakers to make the decision instead. That proposal, critics say, is aimed at ensuring Wisconsin remains part of a Republican challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
The Wisconsin Elections Commission estimated Monday that moving the date of the 2020 presidential primary would cost more than $6 million. In a unanimous vote, the six members of the bipartisan panel said it would be “extraordinarily difficult” to make the move, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Evers said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over the weekend that “everything’s on the table” in terms of attempting to block the GOP lawmakers’ lame-duck agenda, including legal action.
“The last election changed the state in a way that apparently the legislature has decided to not accept,” he said.
In Michigan, where Democrats last month won the governor’s mansion as well as the races for attorney general and secretary of state, Republican lawmakers introduced measures last week that would water down the authority of those officeholders on campaign finance oversight and other legal matters.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) criticized the proposals in a tweet late last week, arguing that the state’s voters “made their choices at the ballot box and state Republicans need to respect the results.”
Republicans in both states have defended the moves as necessary to prevent Democrats from unraveling what they view as their legislative successes.
“Most of these items are things that either we never really had to kind of address because, guess what? We trusted Scott Walker and the administration to be able to manage the back-and-forth with the legislature,” Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said Monday in an interview with conservative radio host Jay Weber. “We don’t trust Tony Evers right now in a lot of these areas.”
The GOP-led moves drew rebukes from prominent Democrats on Monday, including Steyer and Sanders, both of whom are mulling White House runs in 2020.
Sanders, who has repeatedly traveled to Wisconsin to campaign against Walker, called the efforts “disgraceful” and “pathetic” and said they “must be stopped.” Steyer, the megadonor best known for his campaign to impeach President Trump, accused Republicans of “changing the rules” rather than their ideas or their agenda after their midterm losses.
“The GOP, in Wisconsin and across the country, have made their preference clear: power first, democracy second, and the American people last,” he said in a statement.
Former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder, another potential presidential candidate, criticized the latest Republican-led efforts in a Sunday tweet.
“The people spoke in November,” Holder said. “Republicans refuse to hear and seek to hold on to power — by any means. This is not good for our democracy. Time for the people in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin to be heard — again. Contact these legislators/let them know you oppose this action.”
In 2011, 14 Democratic state senators left Wisconsin to prevent a quorum that could vote on a budget bill that ended collective bargaining for most public-sector unions. That tool isn’t available to Democrats now, as the Republican rules package does not substantially affect the state’s spending.
But state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D) said that some Republican ideas, such as allowing the legislature to pay attorneys to work on cases the attorney general had declined, would be unpopular once implemented — if they could be implemented at all.
“Some of what they’re trying to do to the governor’s and the attorney general’s powers may be unconstitutional,” Erpenbach said in an interview. “I hope that some of my Republican colleagues take a step back and realize that they’d be setting a precedent that, 20, 30 years from now, people will look back on as the start of a dark time. But some of them are locked in safe districts, and they just don’t care.”
In a call with reporters on Monday, attorney Bruce Spiva, who won a previous lawsuit against the early voting restrictions, said that the Republican bill would “directly conflict” with the injunction that preserved the old hours.
Sonmez reported from Washington. David Weigel and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.