The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Wisconsin, democracy itself is on the ballot

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) speaks alongside his running mate, state Rep. Sarah Rodriguez, in Madison, Wis., on Aug. 10. (Scott Bauer/AP)

GRAFTON, Wis. — A great deal more than who wins and who loses is at stake in the unfolding battle for governor of Wisconsin. Fair play, reproductive freedom and something closer to democracy itself may be up for grabs.

Tim Michels, an executive in his family’s construction business, won the Republican gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, which means he will face Democratic Gov. Tony Evers in what’s certain to be one of the closest and costliest contests of the year.

That’s partly because the Badger State has long been splintered down the middle. Four of the last six presidential contests were decided by less than one percentage point. In 2020, Joe Biden won by about 21,000 votes out of 3.3 million cast. And not since 1990 has a sitting governor been reelected when his party held the White House.

Donald Trump’s endorsement catapulted Michels over front-runner Rebecca Kleefisch, who had served as lieutenant governor. The former president soured on Kleefisch after learning her daughter attended a high school homecoming dance with the son of a state Supreme Court justice who has opposed Trump’s moves to overturn the 2020 election.

Follow James Hohmann's opinionsFollow

Under pressure from Trump to decertify the 2020 results, Michels said during the primary that “everything will be on the table” if he is elected. One could also assume that Republicans would quickly eliminate the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, which withstood pressure from Trump and his allies to disenfranchise large swaths of voters. Trump has made its elimination a priority ahead of 2024.

Evers’s time in office has been defined by nonstop, house-to-house fighting. The legislature has tried to torpedo him since before he took office. After losing the 2018 election, lame duck Scott Walker signed bills to curtail his successor’s administrative powers. This June, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court allowed GOP appointees to stay on state boards and commissions after their terms expired because the GOP-controlled Senate had not confirmed Evers’s nominees to replace them. In Wisconsin, one Republican hand washes the other.

In response, Evers has vetoed 144 bills since taking office 3½ years ago, shattering a record that stood since 1928. He has rejected significant restrictions on abortion access, voting rights and public benefits. Evers, who calls himself the “goalkeeper,” blocked legislation this spring that would have let people carry guns into schools and churches. “If there’s a different person sitting in my chair, every single one of those bills will come back,” Evers told me between rallies in Green Bay and this Milwaukee suburb.

Focus groups show that the voters who will decide this election perceive Republicans as crazy but Democrats as weak. To activate his base and win over independents, Evers has gone out of his way to convey that he’s a fighter, whether for abortion rights or the sanctity of elections themselves.

Polling shows nearly 6 in 10 Wisconsinites believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but the state has a ban on the books from 1849 without exceptions for rape or incest. (That was a decade before the Civil War.) The law has been dormant since 1973, but state courts are now considering whether more recent limitations on the procedure invalidated the original law.

Evers, a mild-mannered former high school principal who will celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary this week, is an avid collector of bobbleheads and loves polka music. When he gets miffed during staff meetings, the governor usually says, “Holy mackerel.” But when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Evers publicly called the decision “bullshit.” It was a little like hearing your grandfather swear.

In late June, Evers called an emergency special session of the GOP-controlled legislature for the purpose of repealing the 1849 ban. The Senate president gaveled the session in and out in 14 seconds, ignoring shouted objections from Democrats. An hour later, Assembly Republicans did the same in 25 seconds.

For now, most doctors here have stopped performing abortions because they’re afraid they’ll be indicted next year if Evers loses. Michels promises to enforce the ban.

That’s a reminder that Evers, 70, might be the Democratic Party’s only hope here for a while. A rancid redistricting process makes a Democratic takeover of the state legislature practically impossible for another decade. While Wisconsin voters are equally divided among the two parties, legislative maps are drawn in a way that all but guarantees Republicans 63 of 99 Assembly seats and 23 of 33 Senate seats, according to Marquette University’s John Johnson.

The goalkeeper in Madison isn’t the only Democrat running for governor this fall in states where legislatures look likely to remain in Republican hands. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro are making similar appeals. The outcomes in these three battleground states have outsize implications for the integrity of the next presidential election.

Without checks and balances, Republican legislators could change the rules and tilt the playing field in ways that wouldn’t just put Trump back in the Oval Office but would also further demolish the two-party system in key states. “That,” said Evers, “should scare the living crap out of everybody.”