Republican efforts to weaken incoming Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin have reignited the grass-roots fervor that flipped both states in November, turning the typically sleepy post-election period into a key organizing moment ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Liberal groups in both states are organizing demonstrations filling the capitols in both states to oppose GOP legislators stripping power from the governor’s offices before new Democratic governors take their posts. Local chapters of Indivisible, the national “resistance” group founded after President Donald Trump’s 2016 win, reactivated their members weeks after the election to protest the legislation, while MoveOn.org has texted members in key Wisconsin state Senate districts urging them to contact Republican politicians to complain. And Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Democratic Party have raked in money with online fundraising appeals highlighting the fight over the past two weeks.
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The burst of activity comes as most political groups and activists around the country enjoy a hibernation period after November victories. But liberal leaders in Wisconsin noted that the renewed energy could carry Democrats into important off-year elections in 2019 — and set the stage for efforts to win both states in the 2020 presidential election, after Trump picked off both longtime Democratic states two years ago.
The furor is a “great bridge for the energy from the midterm into Trump reelect,” said Tom Russell, a veteran Democratic strategist in Wisconsin. “I think it’s going to be a very good tool for Democrats to keep the energy up, keep people focused, keep people engaged.”
In Wisconsin, the controversy stems from legislation in the final days of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s term to limit the window for early voting and weaken Gov.-elect Tony Evers, the Democrat who bested Walker in November. In Michigan, Republican lawmakers are trying to reduce the power of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. The GOP had controlled the latter two for over a decade and the governorship for eight years, but Democrats won all three offices in this year’s midterms.
Democrats also won the majority of votes cast for state legislature in both states. But they will still be in the minority next year in both legislative chambers in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans drew the political maps at the beginning of the decade. That means Democrats won’t have the numbers in 2019 to reverse legislation passed in the waning days of this year.
“Normally, victory can result in a trailing-off of grassroots energy,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director for MoveOn.org. “But this kind of end-run around the electorate makes sure the progressive grassroots is going to stay in the fight for the foreseeable future.”
The GOP’s legislative actions could stay in the news for a while; the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is monitoring both states and considering whether it could take legal action if Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder sign the measures into law. Protracted court battles could spur the activists for months, up to or potentially through a state Supreme Court race early next year — the type of off-year race at which the Republican Party excelled during the Walker years.
“Progressives have to defend a Supreme Court seat in April of 2019 — this will help them do that,” said Scot Ross, the executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a liberal outside group.
Liberals will then have the chance to take the majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court in 2020, as Trump tries to keep the state in his column in the fall’s presidential race.
In Michigan, there’s also more than executive power at stake for the new governor. State legislative Republicans have also taken steps to undo initiatives to raise the state minimum wage and paid sick leave in the state.
Both initiatives were set to be on the ballot this November before Republican lawmakers short-circuited the process by passing the language — before altering it during the lame-duck legislative session.
“Democrats and progressives both in and out of the party are really concerned about this and they’re really energized by it,” said Liano Sharon, a Democratic organizer in Michigan.
Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer has condemned the lawmakers, while promoting hopes of bipartisanship.
“This legislation needlessly divides and won’t deliver results. It won’t clean up our water. It won’t improve literacy or fix the roads. Instead of working to undermine the very leaders Michigan residents have chosen to get this job done, let’s instead respect the voices of voters who have spoken clearly and decisively, and get back to building bridges.”
Whitmer’s power may be limited during her first years in office thanks to Republicans’ enduring legislative majorities. But in the meantime, activists could push to put new liberal initiatives on the ballot, including a more aggressive minimum wage hike. It could even push them toward contention to flip a state legislative chamber or more in 2020.
“I think the Democrats were energized in November, and now they’re going crazy,” said Barry Goodman, a Democratic National Committeeman from Michigan.