Divided government has returned to Wisconsin for the first time in a decade.
By Jeff Mayers, Wispolitics.com
January 2019

Wisconsin’s statehouse was in control of Democrats during Gov. Jim Doyle’s final two years in office after Dems took over the state Assembly in January 2009. Then after a GOP wave in the 2010 elections, Republicans starting in January 2011 controlled the Legislature, governor’s office and attorney general’s office for eight years, save for one period in 2012 when Democrats briefly won control of the state Senate through recall elections. 

Now a new political paradigm is in place for the 2019-20 legislative session: Democrats control all five statewide constitutional offices, led by new Gov. Tony Evers, who ousted GOP Gov. Scott Walker. He is joined by Josh Kaul, the Democrat who pushed Brad Schimel out of office. 

But Evers and Kaul will have to contend with a Legislature dominated by Republicans and their two veteran leaders: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. 

On the federal level, Republicans continue a 5-3 edge in the now Dem-run U.S. House. But they no longer can depend upon Paul Ryan, who left the speakership and his House seat. Taking his place in southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District is newcomer Bryan Steil, a Janesville attorney and former Ryan aide who has been a University of Wisconsin regent. Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who handily beat Leah Vukmir to win another six-year term, is joined by Republican Ron Johnson in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate. 

The state Supreme Court still leans 4-3 in favor of conservatives. Democrats are watching to see if liberals can hold onto the seat of Shirley Abrahamson in the spring election and then knock off Walker-appointed Justice Daniel Kelly in 2020 to wrest back philosophical control of the high court. Battling for Abrahamson’s seat this spring are two appeals court judges: Lisa Neubauer, of a Racine family that has sent two members to the state Assembly (including current state Rep. Greta Neubauer), and former Walker legal counsel Brian Hagedorn. 

But most of the attention going into 2019 is on Evers, the former state schools superintendent who comes to office without much partisan baggage. 

Evers’ collaborative style could come in handy when it comes to compromise on big issues like road funding. But others worry that if Senate Republicans and Assembly Republicans unite, the Legislature could continually frustrate Evers and lead to gridlock. 

Democrats may not be in a mood to compromise. Partisans point to the December 2018 lame-duck session during which Republicans passed measures to undermine Evers and Kaul; Walker signed them despite a backlash, saying executive powers wouldn’t be diminished. 

The two-year state budget will also be a big test of whether divided government will be marked by gridlock, compromise or something in between.

Evers gets to introduce his budget soon, and during the campaign he promised two-thirds funding of schools, a middle-class tax cut and a Medicaid expansion. But he can’t do that unilaterally. The Legislature has to agree. A general rule of thumb for budget watchers is that governors typically get most of what they ask for in the budget. And if they don’t, they have one of the most powerful veto pens in the country. 

The Joint Finance Committee will be led by two veteran cochairs, state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. And Republicans will once again dominate the budget panel 12-4. 

Republicans also hold wide majorities in the two houses. In the Senate, Republicans have 19 seats to the Dems’ 14. In the Assembly, the GOP holds a 63-36 majority. 

Democrats will have the same two leaders despite disappointing results on Nov. 6: Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse; and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh. 

That means while Democrats in the Legislature can offer rhetorical help to Evers, he and his administration will have to do the heavy lifting. The fiscal year ends June 30, but many predict a budget impasse that could last until fall. 

After the Nov. 6 election, Evers got to work putting together a new administration. 

Maggie Gau, his campaign manager and a former legislative aide, is his chief of staff. Originally of Wausau, Gau formerly served as chief of staff for state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and state Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, and previously worked for former state Rep. Ann Hraychuck, D-Balsam Lake. Gau also was deputy state political director on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. 

Heading up the Department of Administration is Joel Brennan, a close associate of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who led Discovery World in Milwaukee. 

Other key appointments as of late December were: Preston Cole at the Department of Natural Resources, Craig Thompson at Transportation, and Brad Pfaff as head of the state Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection.