A game-changing moment for Wisconsin Democrats. New maps put legislative majorities within reach

With the stroke of a pen, Tony Evers on Monday became the first Democrat in 13 years to achieve a long-elusive goal of the party: to win back political capital in the Wisconsin statehouse.

Democrats have, since 2011, been unable to climb out of a deep minority in the state Legislature cemented when Republicans drew and passed legislative maps that were considered by redistricting experts to be some of the most gerrymandered electoral boundaries in the nation, delivering massive majorities in both houses for more than a decade.

That changed Monday when the Democratic governor signed into law a bill Republican lawmakers begrudgingly passed that implement new legislative maps drawn by Evers.

The significance of the moment for Democrats is immense — creating competitive districts across the state and giving the party a chance to secure a majority for the first time in years.

Let my People Go

Passover is a celebration of freedom from our oppressors, yet Israel and its people are still seeking freedom & waiting for the Peace of Jerusalem. For this Passover, the Genesis 123 Foundation is working to ensure Israel has the resources to fend off any additional attacks from Iran and its terrorist proxies. Will you help Israel defeat the new Pharaoh today?

Let my People Go
1776 Coalition Sponsored

“This is an extraordinary moment. I am floating,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Ben Wikler said after Evers signed the new maps into law. “For voters, for the last 13 years … their vote in the state Legislature was usually symbolic and now it actually has power.”

Not all Democrats were satisfied.

All but two Democratic lawmakers voted against the maps, hoping the Wisconsin Supreme Court would step in and deliver the party even more favorable boundaries. On Monday, just four Democratic lawmakers stood by as Evers signed into law a plan the party has sought for years.

“To me the decision to enact these maps boils down to this: I made a promise to the people of Wisconsin that I would always try to do the right thing,” Evers said at a press conference Monday in the state Capitol. “Keeping that promise, to me, matters most, even if members of my own party disagree with me.”

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signs new legislative maps into law Monday, February 19, 2024, at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. The maps, drawn by the governor’s office and approved by the Republican-led Legislature, create new boundaries in races for state Assembly and state Senate that could end more than a decade of lopsided Republican majorities.

Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Former Democratic lawmakers say Evers’ maps will fundamentally shift lawmakers’ behavior and priorities.

“I taught history and I taught government and I always taught about how compromise was the way government should work and unfortunately, in my time in the Legislature, I never saw that happen,” said Don Vruwink, a former Democratic member of the Assembly who was first elected in 2016 and lost re-election in 2022.

“We would probably get more crossover votes and more compromise because one side isn’t going to dominate the conversation all the time. And I think that’s what we need,” Vruwink, 70, said in an interview. “As a state, that’s what we need in order to to get good policy, because right now there’s a lot of pressure on representatives and senators to vote the party line.”

Adopting Evers’ maps is good news for Democrats even if the changes aren’t likely to deliver as many wins for the party as others the court considered, said Dave Hansen, a Green Bay Democrat who served in the state Senate from 2001-2021.

“If we can have more representative government, more fair government, I think it’s about doing the right thing,” Hansen, 76, said in an interview. “I know the governor is in a tough position and some Dems want the perfect, which probably will never happen, but … it’s much better.”

Lawmakers got along better and worked more effectively in the early 2000s when partisan margins were tighter, Hansen said, adding, “we had the ability to take each other’s ideas and work with them.” Hansen argued the state is “not as red as the Legislature is,” noting that most statewide elected offices are currently held by Democrats.

Rick Esenberg, president and chief counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, disputed the notion that the outcomes of legislative elections should align perfectly with the results of statewide elections — in other words, Democrats winning a majority statewide offices would not guarantee Democrats holding a majority of seats in the Legislature.

“Whether the aggregate outcome of all those elections match the vote in statewide partisan elections will depend on the political geography of the state. There is no reason to assume that they ought to match,” Esenberg said. “If, in an evenly divided state, one party’s voters are more concentrated than the other’s, they won’t match even if the maps are drawn without regard to partisanship. There’s really no question that this is the case in Wisconsin.”

When Gordon Hintz, a Democrat who served in the Assembly from 2007-2023 and as Assembly Minority Leader from 2017-2022, first took office, Republicans held 52 seats to Democrats’ 47 in the Assembly. The Senate had an 18-15 Democratic majority.

In that environment, Hintz said, lawmakers needed votes from people in the political center — making general elections just as, if not more important than, partisan primaries.

“In that time, you saw people in the middle being able to effectively govern,” Hintz, 50, said in an interview. “You saw people that were worried about votes they were going to be taking because of the results of what would happen in the general election, not just in legislative primaries, and you saw that the majority couldn’t just steamroll the minority.”