MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin judge is holding a hearing Thursday to consider whether to order Gov. Scott Walker to call special elections to fill two legislative seats vacated by fellow Republicans in a fight sparked by a national Democratic group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Attorneys for Holder’s groups, the National Redistricting Foundation, argue that Walker has a legal obligation to call special elections as soon as possible to fill the vacancies that occurred on Dec. 29. Democrats argues the governor is afraid Democrats will win the seats, but Walker contends the lawsuit is a partisan, special interest effort to waste taxpayers’ money.
Walker also argues that he’s under no legal obligation to hold the elections. Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds was hearing arguments in the case Thursday but has not indicated when she might rule.
The pair of Republican legislators resigned two weeks after an upset Democratic victory in a state Senate district that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 and had been held by a Republican for 17 years.
The win emboldened Wisconsin Democrats who have been calling on Walker to call special elections in the other two vacancies, one in the state Assembly and the other in the state Senate. Republicans hold an 18-14 majority in the Senate and a 63-35 advantage in the Assembly, so neither race threatens to change the balance of power.
Walker has refused to call elections, saying nothing in the law compels him to do so. He argues that holding special elections before the regular November elections would be a waste of money. Plus, he notes, the Legislature doesn’t plan to be in session for the year after Thursday.
If Walker’s decision stands, constituents in the affected districts would be without representation until January. Staff remain in the open seats to deal with constituent issues.
Democrats, including Holder’s group, have launched a coordinated effort to chip away at Republican dominance from lower-level offices on up. The fight for control of legislative chambers matters over policy debates, but also because they will be the ones who draw state and congressional political boundary lines following the 2020 Census.
The vacant Wisconsin seats were held by Republican Sen. Frank Lasee, of De Pere, and Rep. Keith Ripp, of Lodi. Both resigned to take jobs in Walker’s administration. The Senate seat, which covers the Door County peninsula northeast of Green Bay, has been under Republican control for at least the past 40 years, while Ripp had held the Assembly seat, in a rural area north of Madison, since 2008.