Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Half Of Legislative Seats Already Decided?

Probably. And why? Gerrymandering.

By - Aug 24th, 2020 01:25 pm
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

About that old saying, “Elections matter”? Well, some matter more than others.

Almost one-third of the 132 members of the Legislature that convenes in January have been chosen, months ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

And, if you add the dozens of Assembly Republicans who got more than 60 percent of votes in their districts in November 2018, and are favored to win re-election on Nov. 3, half of the seats in the 2021-22 session of the Legislature have already been chosen.

How does that happen?

Start with this number: 41. That’s the 31 percent of legislative seats that are already filled.

There are 16 state senators — 10 Republicans and 6 Democrats — who are not up for election on Nov. 3. They won four-year terms in 2018, so they will be part of the next session.

Then add four senators – Republicans Robert Cowles and Duey Stroebel and Democrats Lena Taylor and Robert Wirch – whose terms are up this year but who are unopposed on Nov. 3.

Add one Democrat, Kelda Roys, of Madison, who won her August state Senate primary and has no opponent in November. She will succeed Democratic Sen. Fred Risser, who is retiring at age 93 as the longest-serving state lawmaker in the nation.

To those 21, add the 20 Assembly members — 13 Republicans and seven Democrats — up for re-election with no opponents on Nov. 3. They get free rides into the 2021-22 session.

Now, consider how many Assembly Republicans — who started the 2019-20 session with a 63-36 margin of control — got more than 60 percent of votes in November 2018. Records show 25 Assembly Republicans got such landslide wins in 2018.

True, there was no presidential election in November 2018, so you can argue that some of those Assembly Republicans won’t get 60 percent again on Nov. 3, since voter turnout for the Presidential election between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden will be much higher than in 2018.

But, in Wisconsin’s cliffhanger election for President in 2016 — won by Trump with less than 23,000 of the 2.78 million votes cast — Assembly Republicans still won 64 seats.

Now, add the 41 holdover senators, unopposed legislators and Roys to the 25 Assembly Republicans who have won by 60 percent or more in past elections. The result: 66 of the 132 legislative seats seem filled already.

It shows the power of the redistricting plan Republican legislators passed, and then-GOP Gov. Scott Walker signed, in 2011, according to Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee professor emeritus and former Democratic legislator from Milwaukee.

“The 2011 Republican redistricting was nonpareil – an incredible accomplishment of packing Democrats and maximizing Republican-safe districts. Amazing,” Lee said.

“Not that Dems didn’t try, when they had a chance,” he added. “But the power of computer programs took it to an unprecedented level.”

“It’s a relatively safe prediction that — all things being equal — the 2021-22 Legislature will be majority Republican in both houses,” Lee said.

The only exception would be a “voters’ Noah’s flood against President Trump with such a strong tide that washes all the way to the down-ballot offices – a possible scenario that 60 percent GOP districts would not be safe,” he added.

“However, I think that’s unlikely. That would mean status quo in both directions – a GOP Legislature, but Republicans not having a veto-proof majority.”

Three polls recently suggested that a Biden landslide is unlikely on Nov. 3. They gave Biden a lead of five or six points over Trump.

State Senate Republicans want to pick up three Democratic seats, giving them a 22-11 margin of control. Assembly Republicans also want to add three seats, giving them a 66-33 majority.

Although they drew effective legislative districts, Lee said, “Republicans have been hoisted on their own petard: Remaining Democratic districts are so Democratic that it’s unlikely Republicans could win them. They were designed that way.”

Lee said there’s a lesson there for those drawing future district boundaries: “If you make some districts un-winnable by you, they are  un-winnable. Maybe next time, make more competitive districts.”

Question: After taking power in 2011, Republican legislators and Walker abolished straight-ticket voting that allowed someone, by making one notation on their ballot, to vote for all Democrats or all Republicans. Which presidential candidate, or party, will be most helped or hurt by that change?

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

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