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Losing GOP States Try To Lock In Power Before Democrats Take Over


As Wisconsin Republicans make their move, Michigan Republicans are pondering their own. Do a google search for Michigan Republican and one of the suggested ways to finish the phrase is power grab. They want to change the powers of some officials - some official positions just captured by Democrats. Republicans tried something similar in North Carolina when they lost the governorship there in 2014. So what's happening here? Thad Kousser is on the line. He's a political science professor from the University of California at San Diego. Good morning, sir.

THAD KOUSSER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How extreme is the example of Wisconsin?

KOUSSER: Well, it's the most transparent attempt that we've seen in the last two years to use the power of legislators to rewrite the rules, to try to win the game, to try to advance the policies that they want by locking in the power that they lost when they lost the governorship in the last year. This is another example of what's happened throughout the history of state politics. But it's also just the latest episode in something that occurred in 2016 in North Carolina.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's talk that through just a little bit because you mention that this has happened before. People do this a lot, but what's unusual in Wisconsin is that they'd be doing it in a lame duck session after losing the governorship this way.

KOUSSER: Right. So it's - it'll be hard for legislators today in Madison to claim a public mandate for these changes because they're doing it after an election with laws that would be - that have been crafted with - in cooperation with Scott Walker who lost, effectively stripping power from his replacement and from the attorney general. And so some people are crying foul and saying this almost invalidates the results of the vote in November.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should note this is a Republican legislature doing this. Republicans are retaining control of the legislature, but they did that through gerrymandering. It's been noted by The Associated Press, among others, that Republicans lost a majority of the vote in legislative seats as well, but they're still making these changes.

KOUSSER: Yes. And any time a state or Congress does something like this in a lame duck session - sort of try to make changes that would not be approved clearly by the new member who's about to be sworn in, you know, voters can rightfully ask whether this fulfills their mandate.

INSKEEP: How did this work out after 2016 when Republicans in North Carolina tried to change the powers of a new Democratic governor, Roy Cooper?

KOUSSER: Well, it wasn't the best way to start out (laughter) the relationship between the two branches. The governor had a lawsuit. He said that this - that these changes would take a wrecking ball to the separation of powers. And it started the all-out political fight that is - that has gone on in North Carolina since then.

INSKEEP: And just briefly, do Democrats also try to change the rules when they find things not working out in their favor?

KOUSSER: Yeah, so this is just the latest episode in the long-running series of moves in state politics where you see reform often masquerading as - where you see political - bare-knuckle political fights often masquerading as reform. Republicans don't have a monopoly on it. Democrats have done this in other states at other times. And you've seen both principled arguments for changes in the structure of government, but lurking just beneath that is an attempt to rewrite the rules to fill a political objective.

INSKEEP: Thad Kousser, thanks so much.

KOUSSER: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: He's a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, speaking via Skype.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKALPEL'S "SOUNDTRACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.