Are Wisconsin Republicans Moving Too Far to the Right?

After Republicans in Madison refused to even debate bills supported by 80 percent of Wisconsinites, it's time to wonder if the party is ignoring the center.

The Recombobulation Area is a new weekly column written by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos speaks alongside members of the Republican Party of Wisconsin. Photo via Wisconsin State Assembly.

As the Democratic presidential primary has continued to unfold, one of the most frequent questions that’s been asked is: Is the Democratic Party moving too far to the left? The success of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the primary have prompted endless debates on the position of the party, and whether it’s close enough to the “center” or if it’s activating a base of support from the left. 

As this debate continues on throughout the presidential primary (and boy, will it), rarely, does it seem, do we ask the same question of the other major party.

So, is the Republican Party moving too far to the right? Here in Wisconsin, there’s ample evidence to suggest that the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Last week in Madison, Democratic Governor Tony Evers called a special session to take up two gun violence prevention bills that the Republican State Assembly and Senate refused to bring to the floor to debate. 

Both of these bills — a universal background check bill, and an extreme risk protection (or “red-flag”) bill — enjoy more than 80 percent support among Wisconsinites, according to the Marquette University Law School Poll, the gold standard for public policy polling in the state. 

Even with the special session, these bills couldn’t get a single word of debate in either house of the Wisconsin State Legislature. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald began and ended the session in the Senate in less than 30 seconds. For the State Assembly, the session lasted about 15 seconds. 

It’s not just that Wisconsin Republicans went through the process and voted the bills down. It’s that they refused to even debate them. 

Fitzgerald told reporters that “Polling is one thing, I think if you get into the details, because some of these bills are so technical, you might get a different response," which is beyond disingenuous. Seeing as he refused to even debate the bill, they never had the opportunity to get into the details. And these polls have been done for years. Dating back to 2013, support for universal background checks has only once dipped below 80 percent. 

Via Marquette University Law School Poll

Wisconsin deserved better on these bills -- bills that could be saving lives. But this refusal to even debate something supported by such an overwhelming majority of citizens suggests that the 20 percent on the far right of the debate are the only people that the state Republican Party is listening to and governing for. 

It’s not the only policy in which the far right wing of the GOP has dictated policy decisions in Wisconsin within the past year. 

Take Medicaid expansion, for example. 33 states and DC are now accepting federal funding to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, with three more states being added to that list by the end of 2020. Wisconsin is the only state in the Midwest to have refused Medicaid expansion.

And Wisconsin supports Medicaid expansion in big numbers, with 70 percent saying the state should accept the federal funding. Independent voters support accepting Medicaid expansion, 72 percent in favor to 19 percent opposed. Though not a majority, 41 percent of Republicans support it. Even those identifying as ideologically “conservative” support it, 50 percent to 43 percent. Gov. Evers made Medicaid expansion a cornerstone of his campaign, included it in the budget, where it was removed by the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee

So, despite the majority support, Wisconsin Republicans rejected Medicaid expansion.

On marijuana decriminalization, 59 percent of voters say it should be legal, with 83 percent saying it should be legal for medical purposes. Republicans in the state legislature have soundly rejected Democratic proposals to make marijuana legal for recreational or medicinal use, even as our neighbors in Illinois and Michigan have moved forward with decriminalization. Even Republican state Sen. Patrick Testin sponsored a bill calling for the legalization of medical marijuana, but Fitzgerald soon voiced his opposition, saying “Everyone knows that medical marijuana leads to legalized marijuana," and the bill went nowhere. (Sidenote: You should be reading the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s terrific ongoing series “The Cannabis Question,” which is diving into issues on legalizing marijuana.)

Despite the majority support, Wisconsin Republicans rejected marijuana decriminalization, even for medicinal use.

On basic infrastructure, 74 percent of Wisconsinites say the state should spend money to help replace lead pipes. Gov. Evers proposed to add a $40 million budget item to replace the 200,000 lead lateral service lines around the state, but Republicans in the Joint Finance Committee killed the proposal after saying too much money would go to Milwaukee, which has 77,000 of the state’s 200,000 lead pipes. The GOP offered no alternative, while State Senator LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) and several state Democrats introduced a replacement bill funding the effort at the same level outside of the budget process, which has not advanced in the state legislature. 

Despite the majority support, Wisconsin Republicans rejected lead pipe replacement.

Share The Recombobulation Area

Meanwhile, the key policy that’s driving many to ask if the Democratic Party is moving too far to the left has been “Medicare-for-all,” which -- surprise! -- is supported by a clear majority of Wisconsin voters (51%-42%), including 63 percent of independents.

Democrats in Wisconsin also won 53 percent of all votes cast for Assembly representatives statewide, but won only 36 percent of seats. About 205,000 more votes were cast for Democrats in the 2018 election, but that increase swung just one Assembly seat. It’s a bit jarring to see the extent to which the Wisconsin state legislature is gerrymandered. But not unlike the president who lost the popular vote, Republicans in Wisconsin have rarely shown willingness to reach across the aisle and work with the Democratic counterparts, despite the lack of electoral mandate their minority of votes might suggest. 

So what we have is a gerrymandered legislative majority dictating policy by only speaking to the extreme wing of its party, the 20-30 percent of the state that’s rejecting popular policies like universal background checks, Medicaid expansion, and marijuana decriminalization, and are unwilling to do basic (and popular!) things like improve basic infrastructure for citizens who are drinking water from poisoned pipes.

Wisconsin Republicans are moving way too far to the right. It’s undeniable. 

For a state that’s seen by many as the very middle of the national political conversation, the swing state for the 2020 election, the Republican Party here in the state certainly isn’t seeking any kind of common ground or looking to move to the center or reaching across the aisle or whatever people are constantly asking of the Democratic Party. If we’re going to endlessly ask whether one party has moved too far in one direction, we need to be asking the same of the other party -- especially when the evidence to be doing so is this overwhelming. 

There’s a Wisconsin that exists without the obstructionist Republicans running Madison where universal background checks are the law of the land, more than 175,000 more people are covered by Medicaid, marijuana is legal (and adding revenue to the state budget), and lead pipes are being replaced around the state. These are all policies supported by a clear majority of people in Wisconsin. Many of them should have passed into law years ago. It’s time for Wisconsin Republicans like Fitzgerald and Vos to do what so many are asking of Democrats and come to the center to get things done. 

Thank you for reading The Recombobulation Area and supporting independent journalism.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan on Twitter at @DanRShafer.