The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will have the first of its public hearings on the 2017–19 state budget at UW–Platteville this morning.
The reality of the budget process is that the budget will be decided by legislative Republicans’ votes and Gov. Scott Walker’s vetoes. Legislative Democrats will say a lot, but will have no influence on what becomes law around July 1.
That’s because, the Wall Street Journal reports, Democratic influence in state politics has faded like lawn furniture left out all year:
Six years ago, as a bitter winter gripped the Upper Midwest, Wisconsin Democrats mobilized for a major political protest. Demonstrators packed the streets of Madison tighter than a playoff game at Lambeau Field. They descended upon the Capitol in the tens of thousands to oppose Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which would curtail the influence of the state’s powerful public-employee unions.
Some thought those snowy protests would launch a Democratic surge in Wisconsin. Instead they appear to have marked the beginning of the party’s decline. Since 2011 Wisconsin Republicans have been on a winning streak.
In the state Assembly, Republicans enjoy their largest majority since 1957. Twenty of the 33 seats in the state Senate belong to the GOP, the most since 1970. Mr. Walker, who easily survived a recall election in 2012, won a new term in 2014. Last November voters rejected Democrat Russ Feingold’s bid to reclaim the Senate seat he lost in 2010 to Republican Ron Johnson. Remarkably, Donald Trump won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes—the first GOP presidential candidate to do so since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The latest evidence of Democrats’ sorry slide is the election next Tuesday for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. Only six years after their historic demonstrations against Act 10, Democrats couldn’t find a single candidate willing to run against conservative Justice Annette Ziegler in her bid for another 10-year term.
A spokesman for the state’s Democratic Party told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January that “a number of people” considered opposing Justice Ziegler before ultimately deciding not to take the plunge. Considering Wisconsin’s political history as an incubator of 20th-century progressivism, this development is rather stunning. “The Democratic Party has done a terrible job,” Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy told the Journal Sentinel. “We haven’t built the kind of infrastructure that says to a Supreme Court candidate, ‘We can help you.’ ”
The trend, though, goes back to the turn of the millennium. In Supreme Court races that pit a conservative against a liberal, voters seem to prefer the conservative virtually every time. In 2000 Diane Sykes —now a federal judge, whom President Trump has floated as a candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court—beat progressive Louis Butler for a seat on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. Four years later, when Justice Sykes left for the federal bench, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Mr. Butler to the vacancy anyway. But when voters had their say in 2008, they again rejected him in favor of conservative Michael Gableman.
Ms. Sykes’s win in 2000 began an incredible run of conservative victories in competitive Supreme Court races. Today only two reliable liberal justices remain on the court of seven.
Wisconsin progressives have scrambled to explain away the conservative ascendancy. “Big business,” they claim, has swayed court races with large contributions to third-party campaign organizations that promote conservatives.
But Democratic-aligned groups have spent millions on behalf of their favored court candidates. In 2011, the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee put $1.6 million into ads in the last two weeks of the race between conservative Justice David Prosser and liberal JoAnne Kloppenburg, more than any single pro-Prosser group spent. Mr. Prosser eked out a victory anyway, even amid the political storm raging over Gov. Walker’s labor reforms.
Ms. Kloppenburg was later elected to a lower-court seat, but a year ago this April she lost another race for the Supreme Court. Conservative Justice Rebecca Bradley weathered a storm of her own, fending off brutal attacks that dredged up newspaper columns she had written 24 years earlier as a student at Marquette University. Justice Bradley prevailed 52% to 47%, solidifying conservatives’ 5-2 majority.
On election night, Justice Bradley concluded her victory speech with a paraphrase from Winston Churchill: “There is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without result.” If that’s the case, Wisconsin conservatives have a lot to be exhilarated about. Even more so now that the state’s Democrats are so deeply demoralized that they appear to have given up on shooting altogether.
The article doesn’t mention the typical Democratic complaint about redistricting, which is a complaint about the same system Democrats used to redistrict the Legislature after the 1982 gubernatorial election. Whether you call it redistricting or gerrymandering, that fails to explain the aforementioned Supreme Court wins, nor Walker’s three wins, nor U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s two wins over ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D–California — oops, Wisconsin). It’s safe to say that 2016 was about as complete a disaster as possible for state Democrats, beginning with the primary election one year ago.
Wisconsin Democrats’ news got worse late last week, when three potential candidates for governor — former Sen. Tim Cullen, businessman Mark Bakken and former Green Bay Packer Mark Tauscher — all announced they’re not interested in running for governor as Democrats. That adds to such previously reported Democrats declining to run as U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (D–La Crosse), state Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D–La Crosse), state Rep. Peter Barca (D–Kenosha) and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. On the other hand, Republicans are having no trouble finding potential opponents for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D–Wisconsin).
Running against Act 10 isn’t working. Running against Walker — 2014 candidate Mary Burke’s sole strategy was running as not-Walker — isn’t working either. Running against a presidential opponent of unprecedented unpopularity didn’t even work.