Experts say that’s an indication of extreme gerrymandering in Wisconsin. The April election could change things.
By Christina Lieffring, THE BADGER PROJECT
Wisconsin is the purplest of states, with statewide candidates winning by paper-thin margins. But of nearly 90 state legislative races with an incumbent in the 2022 election in the state, only one lost. And even that comes with an asterisk.
For a variety of reasons, incumbents often enjoy an electoral advantage. That has become even more true as parts of the country become more rigid in their political preferences. But in Wisconsin, a state which many experts call one of the most gerrymandered in the country, that fact is an incumbent advantage multiplier. The April election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court could change things drastically.
Former Republican state legislator Dale Schultz spent 32 years in the Assembly and Senate. Incumbency has always had advantages, with resources like staff, a budget, a salary, and name recognition, though that last one could work both ways, he said.
“If you’re incumbent, if people like what you’re doing, they’re gonna vote for you,” Schultz said. On the other hand, if you don’t keep your promises or you do things that are embarrassing to people, they’re not gonna look at you very favorably.”
Retired Democratic state Rep. Spencer Black served for 26 years in the Assembly. Especially at the state legislative level, it’s easy for incumbents to build on relationships with constituents, he said.
“The constituency for Assembly districts is under 60,000, so you have a good opportunity, if you take it, to have a personal connection with a great many of the voters who choose you,” Black said. “At a higher level of maybe, say, governor, it’s hard to shake hands with 6 million people. But you can get to chat with people from, I would say even a majority of the households, at least in voting households, in your district.”
However, the results of the 2022 election far exceeded the power of incumbency, both Schultz and Spencer agreed. Of the 86 state Senate and Assembly races featuring an incumbent, only one lost. And in that case, Republicans drew former state Rep. Don Vruwink (D-Milton) into a different, less safe district than the one that elected him in 2020.
“In general, incumbents in the state of Wisconsin are pretty safe,” said Ryan Weichelt, a geography and anthropology professor at UW-Eau Claire who focuses on political redistricting. “It’s just the way (Republicans have) drawn the districts.”
Weichelt is referring to gerrymandering, the process of constructing political maps to give one party an advantage. While both parties gerrymander across the country, the redistricting process Wisconsin Republicans undertook in 2011 and 2012 was “very shocking” in terms of the huge partisan advantage it gave them, Weichelt said. When the narrow right-wing majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the 2021 maps must aim for the “least changes” from the 2011 map and then enacted Republican-drawn maps, they maintained the partisan slant of the gerrymander into the next decade.
Aside from the Milwaukee suburbs and Green Bay area, “there aren’t drastic changes to the way people are voting” in Wisconsin these days, Weichelt said. “So it’s pretty easy to draw these districts and you’ll know what the outcome’s going to be.”
This makes districts safe not only for incumbent Republicans, but also for many incumbent Democrats. In Dane County, state Rep. Lisa Subeck won reelection with 82% of the vote. Her Democratic colleague Francesca Hong ran unopposed. Because Republicans “packed” Democratic voters into Madison districts, they could put fewer Democratic voters in outlying districts.
Hong also wasn’t the only incumbent who didn’t have an opponent. Quite a few on both sides of the aisle ran unopposed. Even races with a challenger mostly resulted in lopsided wins. Despite being one of the most evenly divided states in the country, swing districts are rare in Wisconsin.
Gerrymandering creates districts in which it is difficult to defeat an incumbent, disincentivizing challengers, stifling competition and protecting politicians from being thrown out of office, experts say.
With the Fair Elections Project, Schultz has been preaching against gerrymandering for years, and now sees that — across the political spectrum — people are not only aware of the practice but also strongly in opposition to it. Because safe districts mean that politicians do not need to respond to their constituents, he said. And he believes it could motivate many to vote in the upcoming Wisconsin Supreme Court election this spring.
That election could eventually end gerrymandering in Wisconsin. The current maps were decided on a narrow 4-3 vote, with the court’s right-wing majority ruling to essentially allow the gerrymander to continue. But if a liberal candidate wins, the majority of the court could swing left, possibly opening a pathway for more competitive maps in the state.
In previous decades, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had refused to involve itself in redistricting. The ultimate result was much more competitive maps after the federal courts oversaw the drawing of the lines, experts say.
After touring the state to talk with folks about redistricting, Schultz said he senses something.
“It was amazing how many talked about the gerrymander, talked about their frustrations with their inability to have their voices heard,” Schultz said. “It’s become clearer and clearer to me, looking at the polls and how people feel and hearing people express their general frustrations about government, regardless of political party, that I think we’re at an inflection point.”
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.