MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The number of Wisconsin state lawmakers hanging it up this year is near a modern-day high, and could even exceed the record set during World War II.
The mass exodus comes amid uncertainty over legislative boundaries due to a redistricting fight, an ever-more partisan political environment and years of animosity between majority Republicans and minority Democrats.
Thirty incumbents have announced they will retire, won’t seek reelection or are running for another office. That’s a quarter of the 118 lawmakers up for reelection. Thirteen Republicans and 10 Democrats in the Assembly are leaving; four Republicans and three Democrats in the Senate are out.
The 30 departures ties with 2014 for the third-highest number of incumbent retirements since at least 1940, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau. Agency data shows 31 incumbents left in 1954 and 32 left in 1942 during the middle of World War II. The LRB’s legislative turnover records date back only to 1940.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Barry Burden said legislative departures are often higher in redistricting years, when the Legislature redraws lawmakers’ district lines to reflect population changes. This year’s maps were delayed as Democrats and Republicans fought over them in court. The state Supreme Court didn’t finalize the maps until earlier this month on the day candidates could pull nomination papers. The districts remained largely unchanged but Burden said the delay likely made it difficult for incumbents to plan.
Burden speculated that Republicans also might be leaving because of internal dissension over election integrity. A vocal faction of the party believes Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump, even though recounts, court decisions and audits have confirmed that Biden defeated Trump by nearly 21,000 votes in Wisconsin.
Republican Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former Chippewa County clerk and chair of the Senate elections committee, is retiring after 12 years in the Legislature. She took intense criticism for defending local clerks’ elections performance and questioning Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ decision to hire former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to investigate the election. Gableman called on her to resign.
She said she was ready to quit anyway, but the attacks made her decision easy. She said many Republicans believe as she does but are too afraid to stand up.
“It just seemed to me something had to be said and something had to be done,” she said. “After getting the slings and arrows from people in my own caucus . . . they came to realize there was nothing they could say or do or no bill that they could write that would make the Trumpians happy. They just decided to keep quiet. They want to move on. I don’t know if they can.”
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke announced in January that he would not seek reelection. He ran afoul this winter of a faction of Assembly Republicans who demanded the body decertify the 2020 election results. Vos and the rest of the GOP leadership refused, saying it couldn’t be done.
Steineke called his decision “just good timing” after 12 years in Madison, but also said he’s been dealing with criticism over his election stance that has at times been irrational.
“Somebody called (from) my district frustrated with the 2020 election,” Steineke recalled. “As we walked through all the issues he believed were wrong in the election, I explained every single one of them and what the reality was. He still couldn’t accept that and then inferred elected officials are agents of foreign governments . . . There’s a segment of our citizenry that is incredibly frustrated and looking for an outlet and often times elected officials become an outlet for that frustration.”
Hanging over all of the departures is a partisan atmosphere that has grown more bitter, personal and sometimes abusive in recent years.
This generation of lawmakers was on the front lines for the divisive battle over then-Gov. Scott Walker’s public union restrictions, a fight that grew so intense that Democratic senators fled to Illinois in a futile effort to prevent passage. The night the Assembly passed the bill Democratic Rep. Gordon Hintz shouted “You’re dead!” at a Republican colleague.
Hintz is not seeking reelection. That leaves Christine Sinicki as the only Assembly Democrat who was present for the floor debate on the bill running again this fall. Senate Democrats never voted on the measure because they had left the state.
The divide deepened after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers defeated Walker in 2018 but Republicans retained control of both legislative houses, leading to gridlock. The rancor has continued in the last two years as Republicans work to tighten voting laws, drawing protests from Democrats who say the GOP is trying to suppress their supporters’ votes.
“I certainly understand the frustration some legislators on both sides of the aisle have, with the make-up of the Legislature and the tone of the debate,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who is retiring after 23 years. “We’re not talking about issues that affect districts. Why is Robin Vos spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on something that’s not real? I got tired of trying to answer that when there’s no answer. Or that the answer is they’re trying to keep the Trump people on board in the Republican Party and that’s the only way to do it.”