Since the November 4th electoral beatdown received by Wisconsin Republicans, state GOP party leaders have been scrambling to offer ways to fix the party. Some say the party has lost its way and needs to be more conservative. Others say the party needs to move to the center to gain new members. My suggestion to adopt a giant lobster with sunglasses as the new party mascot has been largely ignored.
Even if the party were somehow able to get together on a plan of action, the uphill climb is likely more substantial than anyone realizes. If conservatives sit around and wait for the Obama backlash to sweep them into office in 2010, they’ll soon be able to hold their state convention in a minivan in Osseo.
Now that Democrats hold a monopoly on power in Madison, there are several distinct, structural advantages they have which make it more difficult for Republicans to win seats. Many citizens are under the impression that the Legislature exists to serve them. In fact, the Legislature only takes actions that will keep them in power. George Carlin has a joke about jobs – employees do just enough work so they don’t get fired, and bosses pay their workers just enough so they don’t quit. And that, in a nutshell, is your Wisconsin Legislature.
Now, that all changes. When we have split houses, both sides push for electoral advantage. But with unilateral control, Democrats can take legislative action that puts Republicans at a distinct disadvantage. Soon, the Democrats’ de facto electoral edge become a de jure advantage. For instance:
Regulation of Speech
For years, so-called “good government” groups have been dying to get their spindly little fingers on your free speech rights. During campaigns, third parties groups on both sides crop up and run television ads of questionable taste. In many cases, they spend a great deal of money on these ads and don’t disclose their donors, in an effort to protect their members from political retribution.
As a result, many groups have pushed the Legislature to pass laws regulating the timing and content of these political ads. In fact, the Government Accountability Board, a team of unelected bureaucrats, recently deemed themselves eligible to be the political speech police come election time.
In the past, the Legislature has looked at plans that would regulate political speech – and no plan has come close to passing. Both parties seem to recognize that campaign spending takes place on both sides, and they like a lot of these groups doing the heavy lifting on behalf of their candidates. If a bill were to pass under a split Legislature, it is likely that the ads would be affected equally on both sides. Basically, the threat of mutually assured destruction has kept the Legislature from imposing these speech regulations.
However, with Democrats fully controlling the Legislature and governorship, the regulation of political speech can easily be turned into a partisan political weapon. When elected Assembly Speaker, Mike Sheridan of Janesville listed speech regulation as one of his first priorities. “”If you’re getting pounded, at least you should know where you’re getting pounded from,” Sheridan said following his ascendance to the speakership. And when the Democratic Legislature takes over speech regulation, it is almost certain they will slant the law in their favor.
Let’s look at the issue in the simplest possible way: WEAC, the state teacher’s union, spends millions of dollars on issue ads to promote their preferred candidates, usually Democrats. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s business lobby, usually spends equal amounts to promote Republican candidates, for the most part. But once Democrats get their hands on political speech, you can bet which side is going to be shut down come election time. It would be easy for Democrats to ban issue ads, but somehow magically exempt unions from the prohibition. As a result, millions will be spent in support of Democratic candidates, and very little will be spent on Republicans. Such are the dangers of government involving itself in the micromanagement of political debate.
The Natural Advantage of Incumbency
It’s no secret that incumbents win more often. Once someone is in office, it takes a pretty strong crowbar to pry them out. In the last two elections, Democrats have had such a crowbar, and his name was George W. Bush.
Incumbents enjoy a great deal of natural advantages once in office. They get huge mailing budgets to saturate their districts with mailings telling constituents all the great things they’re doing for them. They get hundreds of Blue Books they can send to important supporters. They get to knock on doors all summer on the taxpayers’ dime, while the poor schmuck running against them actually has to campaign while holding down a real job. They get to send press releases to all the press outlets in the district for their entire term, trying to garner earned media. They get a taxpayer funded staff who’s entire job is to make them look good, to grease the skids for re-election. Finally, they get to introduce legislation, which sets the agenda for the state and local press.
And now, more Democrats have these tools at their leisure than Republicans. In fact, an estimated 30 Assembly Republican staff members are likely out of jobs due to the switch in party control. These are the footsoldiers that help win GOP seats – and now they’ll be busy fabricating stuff to put on their resumes instead of working to make Wisconsin a red state. Unless there is a Republican tsunami in two years akin to the kind Democrats have had in the last four, these natural advantages of incumbency are going to be extremely difficult to overcome.
If things don’t turn around for Republicans in 2010, Democrats in the Legislature then get to re-draw legislative districts to their advantage. In the 2000 redistricting, the Scott Jensen-led Assembly drew their district lines to protect their incumbents and the Chuck Chvala-led Senate did the same. At some point, they had to compromise and send a final plan to the governor, who then had to approve it. Then, the Wisconsin Supreme Court approved the final plan, to make sure it passed several tests pursuant to the Voting Rights Act.
With Democrats wholly in charge of the redistricting process, solidifying a liberal majority in both houses will be a snap. For the sake of argument, think of three adjacent legislative districts – one is 70% GOP, and the other two are more marginally Republican – say, 51% GOP. Simply move 5% of the Republicans out of the moderate districts and into the more conservative district – then you end up with one 80% GOP seat and two 46% GOP seats. Dems up two seats, just by moving the line. (This is dramatically simplified, but you get the idea.) Pack as many Republicans into as few seats as possible, and Democrats can run the state for the next decade.
The convergence of all of these advantages, coupled with the tendency of the media to favor Democrats, all adds up to a daunting challenge for the GOP in the near future. Not only are they going to have to outscore Democrats, they’re going to have to cover a significant point spread in the process. Clearly, it’s going to take a lot more than simply complaining about the treatment Sarah Palin got from the media to turn the party around.
-November 13, 2008