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Democrats are drawing battle lines in Wisconsin

TONY EVERS, Wisconsin’s governor and a former teacher, is so gently spoken you might wonder how he used to hush a class of pesky pupils. A cancer survivor with a shock of white hair, he ran for office promising to focus on “solving problems, not picking fights”. His calm manner appealed to many after eight years of Scott Walker—a Republican governor who relished confrontation as he cut public spending and battered unions.

But few fights are now likely to go unpicked in Wisconsin. Mr Evers, who took office in January, has set out a lengthy list of proposals, notably for a two-year budget, that will define much of his administration. There are likely to be months of combat, given the opposition from Republicans who control both the state Assembly and the Senate. The governor will spar, too, for he can veto legislation he dislikes.

Mr Evers is turning out to be more combative than expected. His proposals include legalising medical marijuana and decriminalising its recreational use; boosting renewable energy; withdrawing Wisconsin’s National Guard from deployment on America’s southern border; and a plan to make it easier for migrants, including the undocumented, to get driving licences and access to higher education. He also wants to scrap a “right-to-work” law that is much-despised on the left because it lets those employed in unionised workplaces avoid paying anything to the union.

He proposes that an independent commission should decide on electoral redistricting after a census in 2020, rather than leaving it as usual to the legislature. The idea is to reduce flagrant gerrymandering that favoured Republicans, who won 63 of 99 Assembly seats in November 2018 despite getting less than half the votes and far fewer than the Democrats. The average voter seems to agree that this is unjust: a recent poll found that 72% support his plan for a non-partisan redistricting body.

Then there are promises of substantial policy change. Over 60% of voters back Mr Evers’s promise to expand Medicaid to poor families, something Mr Walker doggedly opposed. Some 75,000 people are expected to benefit. Many also like his plans to spend more, after years of austerity, on roads and education. Meanwhile a 10% cut in income tax is promised for middle-income families, funded by ending part of a tax break for manufacturers. Higher tax on petrol should help state finances, though at present these enjoy a surplus.

What explains Mr Evers’s newfound taste for confrontation? Some had expected him to try co-operating with moderate Republicans, given his slender victory last year. Dan Kaufman, author of “The Fall of Wisconsin”, a damning and entertaining account of Mr Walker’s eight years, instead sees a reckoning under way as Mr Evers undoes the many changes of recent years. “People misread his temperament for his policy agenda—he doesn’t do fiery rhetoric, but he is from a good-government tradition of progressive ideas,” he says.

Mr Kaufman adds that Wisconsin Democrats like boldness, noting that many are populists who backed Bernie Sanders in 2016 (voters in 71 out of 72 counties preferred him to Hillary Clinton in the primary). And any urge to be conciliatory was undermined when Republicans broke a democratic norm last year, by passing laws aimed at curtailing the power of the incoming governor after their candidate lost.

Such behaviour invites retaliation. Barry Burden at the University of Wisconsin in Madison sees Mr Evers learning from Mr Walker in pushing several controversial plans early, when his mandate is strongest. “It seems so dramatic and with many moving parts it is hard to focus, as the opposition,” says Mr Burden. In the turmoil some measures—such as spending on education and roads, plus Medicaid expansion—may pass as the opposition concentrates on blocking more controversial plans.

Fierce partisan scraps can bring other benefits, argues Philip Rocco of Marquette University. They help to remind Democrats nationally to pay sufficient attention to the state. Locals this week waited anxiously to hear if Milwaukee will host the Democratic National Convention next year.

That would be interpreted as a signal that the Midwest won’t be forgotten in 2020. Mr Trump was not popular in Wisconsin in 2016: he won fewer votes than Mitt Romney had managed four years earlier. Nonetheless he carried the state, by a sliver. A long and noisy battle in Wisconsin state politics could spur Democratic supporters to rally around Mr Evers first, and a presidential candidate later.

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "Evers so bold"
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