In 11th-Hour Power Grab, Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan Use Koch Playbook to Subvert the Will of Voters

State Rep. Melissa Sargent addresses protest at state capitol building in Madison, Wisc., during lame-duck session. (Photo: Courtesy Rep. Melissa Sargent)

In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republicans in their respective state legislatures are aiming to clip the wings of newly elected Democratic governors by curtailing executive-branch power with legislation advanced in lame-duck sessions controlled by GOP majorities.

It’s no coincidence that the list of proposed or enacted changes to executive power furthers the agenda long advanced by entities tied to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who set out more than a decade ago to build state-level power through politicians willing to march to their beat.

Just before dawn this morning, Wisconsin legislators concluded an all-nighter by passing bills that will shorten the period allowed for early voting (which proved advantageous to Democrats in last month’s elections) and allow lawmakers to intervene in defense of court challenges to legal statutes by hiring their own special counsel rather than leaving such measures to the attorney general, the position won by Democrat Josh Kaul.

The Wisconsin State Journal wrote of the early-voting measure:

That would curtail the current date window for early voting in large cities such as Madison or Milwaukee — shortly after record early voting totals, especially in those large cities, helped Democrats win every statewide race in the November election.

The Wisconsin legislature also barred the incoming attorney general from withdrawing a lawsuit currently in progress against the federal government, through which the state seeks to nullify the Affordable Care Act, and enacted work requirements for people who receive Medicaid.

In addition, the legislature enacted a scheme to protect the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which Governor-elect Tony Evers said he wanted to dissolve. The WEDC has drawn scrutiny for the deal it cut with the Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn—$3 billion in incentives to offset the building of a $10 billion plant.

And if Evers should wish to ban firearms from the state capitol building, he’s now barred from doing that, too.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who decried a lame-duck session convened by Democratic legislators in 2010—just before his inauguration and the seating of a newly elected Republican majority—appears poised to sign off on whatever the Koch-allied legislature rams through in its closing days.

In Michigan, the three top spots in the executive branch—governor, secretary of state and attorney general—were won by Democratic women. There, according to Vox, the Republican-led legislature is seeking to reserve for itself the right to “intervene in any legal battles involving state laws that the attorney general may be reluctant to defend.” One bill advanced in the legislature’s upper chamber would move enforcement of the state’s campaign finance law from the secretary of state’s office to a to-be-created commission, and will see a vote next week.

Last night, meanwhile, Michigan lawmakers reneged on a deal they made with the voters when they enacted, earlier this year, increases in the minimum wage and a paid-family leave law. That earlier legislation, which would have raised the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022 and allowed employees of large companies to earn paid family leave by a formula that capped at 72 hours of paid leave per year, was enacted in response to proposed ballot measures for those requirements. Once the legislature enacted those measures, organizers withdrew the ballot measures. Now they’ve been gutted in the lame duck.

The significance of Michigan and Wisconsin

The loss of those two key Midwestern governorships to Democrats was a surprising and stinging rebuke to the Kochs, whose flagship Americans for Prosperity organization spent millions in a failed effort to re-elect Wisconsin’s Walker, who lost the governor’s mansion to Tony Evers by less than a percentage point, and spent millions more in negative ads against Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, who bested Republican Bill Schuette in Michigan’s gubernatorial contest. According to the Grand Rapids-based MLive website, as of October 26, Americans for Prosperity had spent $3.9 million in ads against Whitmer, and that “groups associated with the Republican Governors Association,” to which both David Koch and Koch Industries have donated millions in recent years, spent $4.3 million in ads that boosted Schuette and disparaged Whitmer. By October 31, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, Americans for Prosperity had also spent $5.8 million on ads against Evers and Kaul, the Wisconsin Democrats, and ads in favor of GOP candidates for legislative positions in that state.

If any one politician is a product of the Koch machine, it’s Scott Walker, who was brought into the Americans for Prosperity fold when he was a mere county executive in Milwaukee. Once in the Wisconsin governor’s mansion, which he won in 2010, Walker set about effecting the Kochs’ number one goal: the kneecapping of public-sector unions in order to starve them of resources they had successfully deployed in the past to turn out the vote for progressive candidates.

Initially, Wisconsin was something of a pilot project for the Kochs; it was the place where they tested the model for gaining state power via Americans For Prosperity, which was conceived as a counterweight to door-knocking power of the unions, as well as a policy-promoting organization that would ply the Kochs’ anti-regulatory, climate-science-rejecting, tax-cutting ethos to politicians eager for a little help on the ground in winning campaigns.

Wisconsin, they knew, held a place of awe in the history of the U.S. labor movement; it is the state where the public-sector unions were born. Break the unions there, and you could send the fear of God into the heart of every labor activist and union member. So they set about doing just that.

And Michigan, one of the last remaining strongholds of private-sector manufacturing unions, would be next on the list.

The Wisconsin pilot project

In 2005, Americans for Prosperity established its beachhead, employing a known dirty-trickster, Mark Block, to head the Wisconsin AFP chapter. Block had been banned from participating in Wisconsin politics for three years, due to his flouting of campaign laws when he ran a successful 2001 state Supreme Court campaign for a local judge. The minute his sentence was fulfilled, AFP hired Block to set up its Dairy State shop. (More on Block’s shady acts here.)

At a 2010 Tea Party rally in Sheboygan, Block said his goal was to grow the state’s AFP membership to equal that of the Wisconsin Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The agenda? Unfettered energy expansion, rollbacks of environmental regulations, “entitlement reform,” opposition to any government-subsidized health care, redistribution of public education dollars to private entities, lower taxes (of course)—and the diminishment of labor unions.

Block shepherded AFP’s efforts on behalf of Scott Walker’s first gubernatorial bid that year, and was implicated in a vote-caging scheme in Milwaukee. Block’s AFP organizing also helped Ron Johnson defeat incumbent U.S. Senator Russell Feingold, and elect two new freshmen congressmen: Reid Ribble and Sean Duffy. Future House Speaker Paul Ryan, his congressional career long celebrated by AFP, also benefited.

Within weeks of taking office, Walker took aim at Wisconsin’s public-sector labor unions with a bill that gutted collective bargaining rights, sparking 18 days of protest at the state capitol building in Madison as legislators rammed it through and thousands of protesters chanted and disrupted. Americans for Prosperity bused in modest numbers of counter-protesters. Walker prevailed.

In 2011, Block went on to run the Herman Cain presidential campaign and got caught doing some grifty things. But Walker and the legislators who allied with him continued to enjoy AFP’s support.

One of those legislators is Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, whose former policy director, Eric Bott, currently runs the Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin chapter. It was Fitzgerald who pushed today’s lame-duck bills through, complaining to the Wisconsin State Journal that “he did not understand the outrage from the public and Democrats, and emphasized repeatedly that the measures were ‘inside baseball.’”

The Michigan model

The Koch brothers and Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder haven’t always seen eye to eye, but, once elected, Snyder apparently felt he owed the Kochs a debt. After all, they played a significant role in Snyder’s election to the governor’s mansion in 2010. According to MSNBC’s Ned Resnikoff, David Koch donated nearly $1 million the Republican Governors Association Michigan PAC that year, which spent heavily for Snyder’s election.

So, under pressure from Americans For Prosperity, Snyder flipped on his previous opposition to the anti-union measures known by the Orwellian label “right to work” laws, and signed a law passed in the Republican legislature that was designed to thin the ranks of unions.

The law echoed, almost word for word, model legislation promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a policy organization that receives substantial funding from the Koch brothers and their company.

Also pushing for the right-to-work law were entities funded by Michigan’s influential DeVos family, the right-wing, evangelical Amway dynasty whose members also take part in the Koch donor network.

Not going quietly

Given their patrons’ investment of tens of millions of dollars in their political careers, Republican lawmakers in these two states—the Koch brothers’ shiniest trophies for nearly a decade—were not about to quietly cede control of the states’ top offices to the will of the voters.

It’s a tactic that legislatures seated by wealthy, Koch-connected plutocrats rolled out two years ago in North Carolina, when Democrat Roy Cooper unseated the incumbent Republican governor, Pat McCrory. According to Vox’s Tara Golshan:

Cooper has been fighting these changes in the courts ever since, to varying degrees of success. The supermajority of Republicans has rendered him “very ineffective,” said Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a voting rights and campaign finance group in the state.

In North Carolina, the reigning plutocrat is Art Pope, heir to a dime-store fortune, who at one time served as chairman of the board of Americans for Prosperity. He and his family foundations are part of the Koch donor network.

The strategy is based on raw power. The will of the voters means little if it gets in the way of wielding that power. And if one’s last exercise of that power depends on breaking the infrastructure of government so as to deprive one’s opponent of access to it, then so be it. It’s almost epic: a little salting of the fields, so to speak.