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Moderate Wisconsin gets a conservative legislature again
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It's hard to believe, but Robin Vos (left) is a moderate relative to a large part of his caucus.
Credit:Friends and Neighbors of Robin Vos

How does a state that votes for President Barack Obama and elects its first woman -- and the nation's first gay woman -- to the U.S. Senate also elect an overwhelmingly conservative Republican state legislature?

There are two answers: money and gerrymandering. The Democrats were badly outspent in legislative districts that were drawn behind closed doors to benefit Republicans.

In Tuesday's election, Republicans surprised no one by retaking control of the state Senate while maintaining their overwhelming majority in the Assembly. The Democrats did pick up every seat they had a realistic chance of winning, and knocked off Rep. Roger "Some Girls Rape Easy" Rivard.

But is a state that just played a key roll in reelecting the nation's first black president and elected the nation's first openly gay senator ready for more of the tea party agenda pushed by legislative Republicans?

And, for that matter, are the Republicans ready for it?

In 2010 the Republican Party co-opted the tea party movement. They swallowed it whole, and now it consumes them. They lost U.S. Senate seats they should have won in Indiana and Missouri because they nominated far-right candidates even for conservative states. And, arguably, Tommy Thompson lost the Wisconsin Senate seat in part because he had to move so far to the right to capture a hard-fought GOP primary against tea drinkers.

And something similar is happening in the Wisconsin legislature. About two-dozen tea partiers were elected to the Assembly in the 2010 Republican sweep. Most of them were reelected because of the redistricting and the money advantage.

As sophomores now, will they become more practical or will they just be more confident in pushing their agenda? Capitol insiders I talked with said they're likely to be like sophomores -- they'll act up. "They don't believe in compromise," said one Democratic lobbyist. "They believe they're doing the Lord's work, literally."

The other emerging issue will be the rise of Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester). It's hard to believe, but Vos is a moderate relative to a large part of his caucus. Can he maintain the same discipline that the Assembly Republicans had in the last session?

For example, the state needs to do something about the gap in its transportation fund and growing infrastructure problems, but that requires a tax increase, and the tea party caucus will not, under any circumstances, vote for anything that even looks like one.

And how will Vos interact with Gov. Scott Walker? At some point, legislative bodies inevitably tussle with executives even from their own party; sometimes especially when they're from the same party. With Scott Walker thinking about national politics he's not likely to want a lot of hot-button social issues dropped in his lap. Yet Vos will be under some pressure to do just that.

The biggest loser in Tuesday's election was state Sen. Dale Schultz. Had the Democrats lost only one seat in the Senate, as was widely expected, Schultz would have been the moderate Republican in the driver's seat. But with the Republicans picking up two seats, they won't need Schultz, and there won't be much of a break on the most extreme policies.

So what does it all mean for policy? It's too early to say for sure, but you can expect more tax cuts for the wealthy, attacks on renewable energy programs, a revival of the mining bill, more school vouchers, and less support for public education.

They may not realize it yet, but the Republican Party as we have known it since Richard Nixon died on Tuesday night. A party built around conservative white men may be bound for the scrap heap in a nation that is rapidly becoming more diverse. And a disproportionate part of the nation's wealth and research centers are in blue parts of the country.

A state led by tea party Republicans is destined to fall behind and eventually fall out of the mainstream. The reelection of the president and the election of Tammy Baldwin proves that Wisconsin is not an extreme state. But the legislative district gerrymandering may have locked a moderate state into a reactionary agenda.

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