Steven Walters
The State of Politics

State Loses Political Power in Washington

Of all states, Wisconsin and Michigan have lost the most clout in D.C., experts say.

By - Jan 14th, 2019 11:43 am
Western front of the U.S. Capitol. Public domain.

Western front of the U.S. Capitol.

Two years ago, Gov. Scott Walker could call up his old friend, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, with concerns about an issue or controversy involving their beloved Wisconsin.

A former Wisconsin Republican Party chairman, Priebus could even make sure Walker got a chance to talk to President Trump, who called the Republican one of his “favorite” governors.

If he couldn’t reach Priebus, Walker might call U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, third in line to be President, about a Wisconsin issue. After all, Ryan had represented southeast Wisconsin for 18 years.

Or, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos could try to reach Priebus, his roommate when both attended UW-Whitewater.

If the issue involved northwest Wisconsin, Republican Congressman Sean Duffy – a champion of Trump and a sound-bite favorite of cable TV news shows – could quickly get the White House’s attention.

Or Duffy, then chairman of an important U.S House subcommittee, could network with other powerful GOP power brokers on a Wisconsin problem.

Another powerful House Republican, Fifth District Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a lawmaker since 1979, could also be counted on for problem-solving advice.

What Wisconsin officials might call Washington leaders about could include many things: waiving federal Medicaid rules to require healthy, childless recipients to work or get job training to keep getting benefits, or putting a time limit on their Medicaid benefits. Or, could that disaster declaration after flooding in southwest Wisconsin be issued soon?


When Wisconsin’s new governor, Democrat Tony Evers, or Republican legislative leaders seek help from Washington, there are no political levers to pull or chits to call in.

In a divided nation’s capitol – where Republicans control the White House and U.S. Senate, but Democrats control the House – there are no leaders to move Wisconsin’s problems to the top of any “to do” lists.

Wisconsin’s trifecta of GOP Washington fixers – Walker, Ryan and Priebus – are gone. Walker lost his bid for a third term. Ryan retired after a frustrating final term, apologizing as he left for soaring federal spending and deficits. Trump fired Priebus in July 2017.

Sensenbrenner and Duffy lost their subcommittee chairmanships and all institutional power when Democrats won control of the U.S. House on Nov. 6.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who replaced Ryan, owes Wisconsin’s five Republican members of the U.S. House nothing.

Of Wisconsin’s three U.S. House Democrats – Gwen Moore, of Milwaukee; Mark Pocan, of Madison, and Ron Kind, of La Crosse – Moore has worked with Pelosi the longest.

Kind has the most seniority of the three, but he again voted to not re-elect Pelosi as House speaker – votes the hardball-playing speaker will never forget or forgive.

Pocan is cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but it is unclear how much clout that group will have in a divided Washington.

And, the state’s two U.S senators – conservative Republican Ron Johnson, who is serving what he says will be his final term, and liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who won a new six-year tem on Nov. 6 – disagree on how to approach all major problems facing the nation.

Johnson can take calls for help from Vos and State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and relay those concerns to the White House. But Pelosi does not need to work with Wisconsin’s GOP senator.

Evers will call Baldwin for help on Washington issues, but U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struggles to lead his GOP caucus, so he has no time for Baldwin.

National political experts say Wisconsin and Michigan might be the two states that lost the most clout in Washington in recent years.

“You can make a good case that Wisconsin’s decline in power and influence is one of the most noteworthy in modern times,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor and director of the Center for Politics.

But, Sabato added, “At the same time you’d also have to say the state has become a critical swing state in presidential elections. No swing state is going to be ignored.”

Trump’s 2016 win in Wisconsin and two other states elected him President.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Cyrstal Ball newsletter, added: “Michigan has lost a ton of seniority in recent years on both sides of the aisle.”

But Kondik said, “Wisconsin still may be a better case … but Michigan might be worth citing as another competitive Upper Midwest state with a similar dynamic.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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