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This Week in Statehouse Action: Get Busy edition
Politically, it can be tempting to see this time of year as a bit of a lull (unless it’s a presidential election year, but it’s not, so let’s fret about primary schedules another time).
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But when it comes to statehouse action, there’s not much of an off season.
Take next week, for example.
On Tuesday, February 21, a bunch of super important elections are happening (some special, some … well, “ordinary” doesn’t feel like a great way to describe them, but you get my drift).
Let’s start with the special specials.
In New Hampshire, where Republicans just barely control the 400-seat state House, this Tuesday’s special election is special because of the circumstances that brought it about.
And this is one for the “every vote counts” file:
This election is a do-over ordered because November’s race for District Strafford 8 was a literal tie.
After the November contest ended in a 970-970 vote deadlock, the legislature voted to resolve the race via a new election.
In Wisconsin, voters will cast ballots on Tuesday in two primary contests: one special, one regularly scheduled.
The special primary is for the 8th Senate District’s GOP nomination (with a special general to come on April 4), where three Republicans are battling it out as Democratic nominee Jodi Habush Sinykin rakes in campaign cash.
Seriously, Habush Sinykin has apparently raised more money for this contest than her three GOP opponents combined.
Those three Republicans are state Reps. Janel Brandtjen and Dan Knodl and Thiensville Village President Van Mobley.
This race is watch-worthy for a few fun reasons:
If Democrats win the general for this seat on April 4, Wisconsin Republicans will no longer have a veto-proof supermajority in the state Senate, which would be, like, a nice thing.
Rep. Brandtjen is perceived as so extreme and potentially unelectable that Democrats are funding ads supporting her, and the Republican State Leadership Committee has taken the unusual step of spending money in a GOP primary to defeat her (to the tune of $160,000 on mail and digital in support of Rep. Knodl).
Donald Trump has made an endorsement in the race (Brandtjen, obvs).
Wisconsin’s regularly-scheduled primary on Tuesday isn’t actually for a state legislative election, but it will have an outsized impact on elections, reproductive rights, and more, so it’s absolutely one to watch.
As I’ve said before in this space, arguably the most consequential election of the spring is happening in Wisconsin on April 4, and the balance of power on the state Supreme Court is at stake.
But the path to April runs through Feb. 21, when a four-person field – two conservatives and two progressives – will be narrowed to just two contenders for an open seat on the state’s highest court.
Currently, conservative justices (candidates are nominated by the parties but are ostensibly nonpartisan and appear without party labels on the ballot) have a 4-3 majority on that court, and Republicans have used it to protect their gerrymandered legislative maps and buttress unpopular GOP policies.
Soon, the court will hear and rule on a case that will either uphold or strike down Wisconsin’s abortion ban, and they have and will continue to hear cases on voting rights, workers’ rights, public school funding, gun safety, and more.
These justices serve 10-year terms, so whoever wins in April is gonna be around and ruling on stuff for quite a while.
And if Democrats don’t flip the court this year, they may not have another chance to do so until 2026 (notwithstanding retirements and other intervening factors).
But Democrats will only have a shot at that seat if at least one progressive makes it out of Tuesday’s primary.
The liberal candidates are Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and Dane County Judge Everett Mitchell.
The conservatives are Waukesha County Judge Jennifer Dorow and former Justice Daniel Kelly.
It’s difficult to predict who’s going to make the April 4 ballot, but if cash money is any indicator, we could be looking at a Protasiewicz-Dorow contest.
According to the most recently available fundraising numbers, Protasiewicz has raised $725,000 and has $277,000 cash on hand, while Dorow has raised $365,000 and has $267,000 cash on hand.
But while Kelly’s numbers aren’t as impressive ($100,000 raised, $202,000 cash on hand), he’s not exactly being left out in the cold by high-powered conservatives.
Yes, you read that right, and yes, Kelly is a dude. Don’t ask me to explain conservative attitudes towards women, it won’t be insightful and it will be all swears.
Also, progressive cross-partisan intervention in Wisconsin primaries isn’t being confined to the state Senate contest mentioned above.
A Better Wisconsin Together has invested $1.9 million on spots accusing Dorow of issuing too-lenient sentences in some of her cases, a tactic designed to convince conservative base voters to reject her in favor of the ostensibly less-electable Kelly (which seems clever enough, considering that voters already rejected Kelly once, booting him from the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2020).
Should be a fun night all around.
After the devastating gun attack at Michigan State earlier this week that left three dead and five wounded, a member of that state’s Democratic House was, I think, understandably frustrated that these mass shootings keep happening and no one seems willing to do anything meaningful about them.
“Fuck your thoughts and prayers,” Michigan House Majority Whip Ranjeev Puri both tweeted and led a related official press release with.
It’s not quite as artful as ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens, but the sentiment is basically the same.
And sure, he could have said it without the swear, but it’s hard to prioritize pearl-clutching when people keep getting killed by guns, and the best Republicans ever seem to be able to respond with is offering the above-referenced “thoughts and prayers” and, occasionally, “something something more funding for mental health” (which is objectively a good thing in any context but is essentially a diversion tactic and does nothing to effectively address our nation’s epidemic of gun violence).
And of course, Puri’s statement gave a bunch of out-of-state conservatives the vapors, but who cares? People are dead.
But unlike, say, a year ago, when the Republicans controlling the Michigan legislature blocked multiple gun safety bills Democrats pushed in the wake of the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Puri and his colleagues are actually in a position to do something about it.
As an erudite consumer of this missive, you’re likely aware that, for the first time in 40 years, a Democrat holds the Michigan governorship as Democrats also have majority control of both chambers of the Michigan legislature.
Gun safety legislation was already on the menu of Democratic legislative priorities for their first session in charge in forever, but this week’s deadly shooting rocketed these measures to the top of their to-do list.
Specifically, Democrats are working to pass bills that mandate universal background checks on firearm purchases, impose temporary “red flag” measures (involving court orders requiring police to seize a gun from an individual deemed a threat to themself or others), and require safe storage.
And voters are already on their side.
Back in December, a statewide poll found that gun safety laws (specifically “red flag” and universal background checks) topped the list of voters’ priorities for the incoming Michigan legislature.
The same poll found “nearly universal” support (90%, actually) for background checks, as well as 74% support for red flag measures and 63% support for safer gun storage requirements.
Meanwhile, Michigan Republicans have responded to this week’s mass shooting by saying they want to “reach a consensus” on measures improving mental health services.
Good news! (Sorta.) Redistricting is finally over! (Sorta.)
Over the weekend, Montana became the last state to officially wrap up its legislative redistricting process this decade.
Wild, right? Here’s how it happened:
An arcane provision of Montana’s constitution requires the bipartisan redistricting commission (two Rs, two Ds, one nonpartisan chair) to submit legislative plans to lawmakers at the legislature's "first regular session" after its maps are complete.
But since this is one of the handful of legislatures that only meet in odd-numbered years (in this case, for 90 working days starting in early January and wrapping in May), there's no way for the commission to finish its work for the session that starts immediately after a census year — in this case, 2021.
As a result, legislators only got to review these maps at the start of this year, although the delay is basically pointless, since the review is totally advisory; only the redistricting commission is empowered to draw and approve maps.
Anyway, the commission voted to approve the proposed maps, and now it has 30 days to file them with the secretary of state – at which point they'll automatically become law.
Of course, it’s probably not going to be that simple.
As drawn, the new House map would, under “perfectly average” electoral conditions, send 60 Republicans and 40 Democrats to the state House.
The Senate map has similar proportionality, likely electing 31 Republicans and 18 Democrats.
And, as one Democratic commissioner argued, shouldn’t these maps be drawn in a way that could elect Republicans and Democrats roughly equal to their share of the statewide vote?
The commission averaged past statewide races and calculated that Montana’s overall political lean at 57% Republican and 43% Democratic–which means that these maps are even a little more friendly to the GOP than they ought to be.
But that’s not good enough for some power-hungry Republicans in the Treasure State.
Republicans are bitching and moaning that the new maps don’t give them enough of an advantage, and they’ve indicated that they’ll likely sue to block them.
… which is kinda understandable, on some awful level.
Montana Republicans currently enjoy supermajorities in both chambers, with 34 out of 50 seats in the Senate and 68 of 100 in the House, and these new maps could give Democrats the chance to roll them back.
But the chambers’ respective supermajorities aren’t a huge issue (after all, it’s unlikely a GOP chamber is going to overturn the veto of a GOP governor); what Republicans really want to hang on to is at least 100 seats across both chambers.
You see, 100 votes across both legislative chambers are required to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, and Republicans currently control 102 out of the 150 total seats.
The new maps would likely strip the GOP of the numbers needed to exercise that power without Democratic support.
So … lawsuit!
And finally, a not-so-fun fact:
Last week in this space, I noted that Republicans are guaranteed to win majorities in the Mississippi House and Senate this fall, just by virtue of how many GOP seats Democrats are leaving uncontested.
So … Just for fun, guess how many legislative chambers had locked-in majorities in 2022 before a single ballot was cast last fall.
It’s, like, a lot.
In 2022, one party was guaranteed majority control of no fewer than 21 legislative chambers across the country long before Election Day (some say 22, but Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is ostensibly nonpartisan, so it doesn’t count).
Most (19, specifically) of these effectively uncontested chambers are Republican-controlled:
Alabama House and Senate
Arkansas House and Senate
Idaho House and Senate
North Dakota House and Senate
Oklahoma House and Senate
South Dakota Senate
West Virginia Senate
Wyoming House and Senate
Democrats had pre-Election Day guaranteed majorities in two chambers:
Whichever side of the aisle you tend to identify with, this is just … well, bad.
Jan. 6, 2021, gets so much of the focus when it comes to attacks on democracy (and, well, it should, yes), but elections that literally don’t matter at all when it comes to which party has power in a state threaten democracy in their own way.
It’s no coincidence that every state on this list except Massachusetts, Ohio, and Utah ranked in the bottom half of the country in terms of voter turnout in 2020.
Seven were in the bottom 10!
After all, when you know your vote doesn’t really matter in terms of who has power in your state, you’re less likely to take the trouble to cast it.
That’s a wrap for this week.
Personally, I didn’t really see the Sean Paul theme coming, but here we are. Sometimes these things take on lives of their own.
But … yeeeeeeaaaaah, I’m gonna bet you have a better idea for a future This Week in Statehouse Action theme.
Hit me up! I love ideas.
Also, I love questions, suggestions, thoughts, gripes, hopes, prayers …
So don’t hesitate to send them my way.
Because you’re important.
We need you.
Thanks for reading This Week in Statehouse Action! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.