MADISON, Wis. – The governor of Wisconsin called a special session last week to debate gun legislation. It resulted in exactly zero new laws, and it lasted less than a minute.
Such is life these days in Wisconsin, a state that for much of the last decade was a laboratory for some of the nation’s most conservative policymaking and a hotbed of partisan fervor, but where pretty much everything has now slowed to a crawl.
Acrimonious deadlocks have become the new normal in Wisconsin, one of three Midwestern states where Democrats ended full Republican control last year by flipping governorships. Gov. Tony Evers’ defeat of Scott Walker, whose success at pushing Wisconsin sharply to the right prompted a brief presidential bid, has given Democrats a new foothold this year in a region where they had been mostly sidelined. Yet with attention turning to the presidential election, in which Wisconsin voters are seen as playing a decisive role, divided power has given way to frustrated impasse, with little chance for either party to hold up state policymaking as the showcase it once was here.
“There’s very few things that we have been able to find common ground on,” said Evers, the Democrat who — as the gavel-in, gavel-out special legislative session showed — has struggled to enact his agenda. Evers’ gun bills, which would have expanded background checks and created a way to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed dangerous by a judge, never even came up for debate.
“Both sides are being effective at being the goalie,” said Robin Vos, speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, where, as in the Senate, Republicans dominate. Before Vos’ caucus started and ended the special session in about 15 seconds, he called the governor’s gun bills a cynical move to “inject this hyperpartisan issue where he knows he’s not going to generate some kind of consensus.”
In Wisconsin, Michigan and Kansas, Democrats’ victories last November came after a period of extraordinary, sustained GOP success. Going into the 2018 election, Republicans controlled the governor’s offices and the full legislatures in 10 of 12 Midwestern states. The region was also a crucial base of support for President Donald Trump in 2016, including in Wisconsin and Michigan, where many experts had assumed he would lose.
Though the purpling of Midwestern statehouses since last November has served as a check on Republican power, it has hardly led to a bonanza of liberal legislating.
In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly has so far been unable to persuade Republican lawmakers to expand Medicaid. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been limited in her efforts to fulfill a campaign pledge to “Fix the damn roads!” And in Minnesota, where Republicans control one chamber, Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, told local reporters that he would not call a special session on gun restrictions because he doubted it “would move us any further along.”
The region’s lone counterpoint is Illinois, where Democrats unseated a Republican governor last year and seized full control of state government. Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois has signed new laws this year to ease abortion restrictions, legalize recreational marijuana and raise taxes.
But in Wisconsin — where mistrust between the parties is high and the angling for 2020 is well underway — the Capitol has slowed down. Though Evers and legislative Republicans managed to compromise on a state budget, which included more education funding, their relationship has been defined largely by political needling, like the abortion restrictions that were passed by lawmakers and vetoed by the governor.
“I don’t think there’s any trust or respect for Republican leadership by any Democrats” in the Assembly, said Rep. Gordon Hintz, the top-ranking Democrat in that chamber.
Mostly, the feeling seems mutual.
Last week, the GOP-held state Senate effectively fired Evers’ nominee for agriculture secretary, who had already been serving for months. On the Assembly floor, after lawmakers tried and failed to override some of Evers’ vetoes, a GOP lawmaker accused Democrats of hypocrisy for focusing too much on mass shootings in other states and not enough on street violence in Milwaukee. And during the rally by supporters of Evers’ gun bills, a few gun rights activists paced through the crowd and occasionally interrupted the speakers.
But for all the discord at the Capitol, it seems that many voters may be content with the new, slower pace. Marquette Law School polls this year have shown both Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature with approval ratings above 50%.
Hintz’s theory on the seemingly discordant survey results: “The level of dysfunction and cynicism and chaos that’s happening in Washington, D.C., makes doing nothing, perhaps, in Wisconsin seem somewhat calm.”