In Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere, losers seek to undermine election results

Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said legislation to thwart the incoming Democratic governor was an overdue attempt to balance power among government branches.
(Steve Apps / Associated Press)

Democrat Gavin Newsom has yet to become California governor, but a candidate for state Republican Party chairman already is promoting a recall effort.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, GOP lawmakers have rushed through legislation to thwart their incoming Democratic governors and hamper others in the opposing party from doing the jobs voters elected them to do.

In Congress, GOP leaders have echoed President Trump and sought to undermine the legitimacy of Democrats’ strong midterm performance, raising unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and political malfeasance.


It used to be that once a campaign was over and the outcome known, the losing side would accept the results, with varying degrees of grudgingness and grace, and move on.

No more.

In a continued breakdown of political norms, the win-at-all-costs mentality that pervades campaigns now persists in their aftermath, extending the scorched-earth tactics past election day with the intent, in extreme cases, of nullifying or even reversing the results.

The consequence, some fear, is not just a few days worth of headlines about partisan skirmishing or the usual jostling between competing interests, but something far more serious and corrosive.

“This is about as fundamental as it gets,” said Howard Schweber, a professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “The way people lose faith in political institutions is when it seems they’re no longer governed by constitutional principles but government by capture — to the victor go the spoils.”

Traditional politics has been replaced by holy war.

— Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who teaches at USC and UC Berkeley

The prospect of recalling California’s governor-elect, promoted by Huntington Beach Assemblyman Travis Allen, seems more a ploy to draw attention to his bid for state GOP chairman than the slightest threat to Newsom, who won in a Nov. 6 landslide. (Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, “destroyed” the city, Allen asserted in a Twitter call to arms that links to an online petition. “Don’t let Gavin do the same to California.”)

Questions by Trump and others about the vote-counting in Arizona, where Republicans lost a Senate seat, and California — where the GOP surrendered seven House seats after a prolonged tally — seem intended to deflect blame for the setbacks and may reflect genuine puzzlement about why the count took the better part of a month.

The move to neuter Democrats in Michigan and Wisconsin is more substantive and potentially far-reaching.

It is not unusual for a party losing power to, say, ram through last-minute appointments or enact policy priorities while they still have the votes. What is different this time are efforts to change the law to purposely cripple the opposition.

In Michigan, Republicans who control the Legislature have voted to strip campaign-finance oversight from the incoming secretary of state, to meddle with a voter-approved redistricting commission and to cement in place conservative policies by restricting the new governor and attorney general. All three are Democrats.

Outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder promised an objective review before deciding whether to sign the bills into law.

In Wisconsin, the Republican-run legislature hastily passed legislation to limit early voting — which was seen as helping Democrat Tony Evers narrowly defeat incumbent GOP Gov. Scott Walker — and to shift power away from the governor’s office to GOP lawmakers.

They also sought to make it more difficult for the incoming Democratic attorney general to pull the state from a lawsuit opposing the Affordable Care Act.

“This is a heck of a way to run a railroad,” Jennifer Shilling, a Democrat who is the state Senate Minority Leader, said of the late-night session when the measures were enacted amid chanting protesters. “This is embarrassing we’re even here.”

The Republican speaker of the Assembly and a prime mover behind the legislation, Robin Vos, said the changes were a long overdue recalibration of power between the legislative and executive branches and an effort to ensure the dramatic policy changes enacted under Walker — on labor, welfare and voting requirements — were not reversed.

“We’re going to stand like bedrock to guarantee that Wisconsin does not go back,” Vos told reporters.

On Friday, Walker signed the measures into law, brushing aside “a lot of hype and hysteria, particularly in the national media, implying this is a power shift. It’s not.”

In every instance, the animating impulse appears the same: the increasing gulf between the two major parties and the personal contempt, if not sheer hatred, many feel these days toward those who don’t share their personal views or political outlook.

“Traditional politics has been replaced by holy war,” said Dan Schnur, a former strategist for Republicans Pete Wilson and John McCain.

“Whether it’s Republicans in December 2018 or Democrats in December 2016 … once you decide the person on the other side isn’t your opponent but your enemy … once you decide that person must be evil or stupid, it raises the stakes,” said Schnur, who teaches political science at UC Berkeley and USC. “You compromise with your opponent. You don’t compromise with the devil.”

The fundamental policy differences between the two parties also elevate the stakes when power trades hands, making the changeover more than a matter of shifting emphasis or tinkering on the legislative margins.

In Wisconsin, for instance, Walker and fellow GOP lawmakers refused more than $1 billion in federal funding to expand the availability of healthcare under the Affordable Care Act. Evers, by contrast, has vowed to make expansion of the program one of his top priorities.

“To the extent lawmakers aren’t talking compromise anymore, the change of party means a very striking change in outlook,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance at the Brookings Institution in Washington and former domestic affairs advisor to President Clinton.

Given the difference, he added, political sabotage “makes a kind of horrible sense.”

Years of legal battling seems certain to follow. Democrats and liberal advocacy groups in Wisconsin are expected to sue to try to block the GOP-passed legislation.

Two years ago, North Carolina Republicans enacted sweeping measures designed to stymie the state’s incoming Democratic governor. Many of the bills were struck down in court, only to be passed again with some modification, prompting renewed lawsuits.

The solution, Galston suggested, is not litigation but lawmakers standing back from what he called a dangerous and growing threat to “a bedrock of our democracy, the peaceful and orderly rotation of power in response to competition.”

“Parties on both sides of the aisle should do their best, while fighting fiercely over issues, to back the legitimacy of that competition,” Galston said. “If they don’t, who will?”

Twitter: @markzbarabak