Wins have been hard to come by for Tony Evers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The first-term Wisconsin governor, like many of his contemporaries, has had to contend with the partisan backlash that has come with the policies brought about by the public health crisis—but unlike other Democratic governors, he’s been overruled, outmaneuvered or taken down by state Republicans to the point that even a key legislative ally concedes Evers’ approach has been impacted.
That dynamic would be difficult to navigate anywhere, but given Wisconsin’s status as a key swing state heading into November’s general election, the stakes can be even more alarmingly high in a place critical to both political parties’ White House hopes. “Republicans in the legislature think that Tony Evers is weak,” said Charlie Sykes, a prominent Never Trump figure and conservative commentator in Wisconsin. “They think he can be rolled. And they’re not exactly wrong about that.”
Observers on both sides point to tensions that were simmering in the state long before the coronavirus threw American politics into turmoil as only further playing into the partisan divide in Wisconsin during the pandemic, where the Democratic leader must contend with emboldened GOP near-supermajorities in the state Assembly and Senate and the force of the Wisconsin state Supreme Court as he tries to guide his state through the public health crisis.
That has proven difficult at times for Evers, a man whom Anthony Chergosky, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, described as selling “boring to the public,” when he ran for governor.
“That's also one of his weaknesses when he's trying to work with the legislature,” Chergosky said, pointing to the governor’s “low-key” tenor and his inability to wage the same public relations battles in the way that other governors can. “It's difficult for him to rally public support. It's difficult for him to get out there in the public and to rouse people or whatever. I think in many ways Evers' greatest strength is also his greatest weakness.”
Evers became governor after beating incumbent Republican Scott Walker in 2018, ridding the governor’s office of the former 2016 GOP presidential candidate whose controversial tenure had enraged Democrats. But when the coronavirus pandemic shifted the country into shutdown mode and governors turned to flexing their authority, Evers found himself reeling early on.
Wisconsin’s April 7 election, which included the presidential primary and a key state supreme court race, raised alarm bells as questions emerged about the wisdom of holding in-person voting on the election day during a pandemic that experts were still struggling to understand. After a legislative attempt by Evers to delay the contest failed, a Hail Mary move by the Democrat of signing an executive order on the eve of the election in an effort to delay it to June was thwarted by a GOP-led court challenge. A silver lining did emerge however from that contest, where the Democrats’ preferred candidate won a state Supreme Court seat, cutting into the likely opposition the governor could face from the state’s high court.
Evers’ administration took another legal hit in May when the state Supreme Court deemed his administration’s safer-at-home order “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable,” after Republican leaders challenged it in a move that appears to have had a lasting impact.
“Since that lawsuit, it has kind of neutered, I think, some of the options available to the governor and how aggressively he wants to go after them,” Rep. Gordon Hintz, the leading Democrat in the Wisconsin Assembly, told The Daily Beast.
Miriam Seifter, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said in an email that “the opinion seems to have had a chilling effect on further attempts at executive emergency response, with both the governor and the state (Department of Health Services) hesitating on or delaying actions not covered by the ruling out of fear they will lose in court again.”
“The result has been a governing gap in Wisconsin, with local governments left to try to address statewide problems,” said Seifter, who co-wrote an amicus brief in the case “on behalf of 17 legal scholars” that criticized the GOP controlled legislature’s challenge.
Evers office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Despite his struggles, the governor’s performance is still favorable in the state.
A poll released earlier this month by the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found Evers with a 53 percent rating when it came to those who either strongly or somewhat approved of the job he was doing while the same combined mark on disapproval came in at 48 percent. Former Vice President Joe Biden led Trump by 6 points in the state, falling just outside the poll’s margin of error, the poll also showed. A recent CBS/YouGov battleground tracker poll also showed Biden leading the president by 6 points.
The Democratic governor also moved slower than even the Republican leaders of Alabama, Arkansas, and Ohio when it came to announcing a mask mandate in the state. That charge was quickly met with a fiery statement of resistance from GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. The governor’s charge was further complicated by local resistance, with WAOW News 9 in Wausau, Wisconsin, reporting that some sheriffs quickly made public that they had chosen not to enforce the governor’s mask decision.
“Republicans in the State Senate stand ready to convene the body to end the Governor’s order, which includes the mask mandate,” Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress, said in a statement following the order. “The governor has caved to the pressure of liberal groups on this. How can we trust that he won’t cave again and stop schools that choose in-person instruction this fall? There are bigger issues at play here, and my caucus members stand ready to fight back.”
While his threat didn’t come to fruition before the state’s latest primary election on Tuesday, Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist in Wisconsin, noted that “Republicans are making it very easy to associate Republican legislators with Trump's failure to get his arms around the pandemic."
“They are basically in lock step with Trump that like this isn't a big deal, it'll all go away by itself, there is no need for a public policy response, and that is going to hurt them,” Zepecki said. “Whether it's to the same degree that it's hurting Trump, that's what we're going to find out in the next eighty (some) days or whatever we've got left here.”
Rep. Adam Neylon, a Republican, said in a text message to The Daily Beast that “the pandemic has shown the Gov. Evers’ inability to govern.” But he wasn’t optimistic about Republicans’ ability to successfully challenge the mask mandate in the statehouse.
“I don’t believe at the moment Republicans in the legislature have the votes to overturn the mask mandate,” he said. “I think we should. If we don’t stand up now to this power grab, I worry about what comes next.”
The climate facing Evers in the state is one that observers say is born out of the partisanship left behind by Walker’s tenure as governor. After losing to Evers, Republicans pushed through legislation signed into law by Walker in a “lame duck” session that, according to the Associated Press, cut into some of the same powers and reach the Republican leader enjoyed during his tenure. Further tensions became even more clear after a recording was obtained by The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel through the state’s public records standard of a May phone meeting between the governor and the Republican leaders of the state Assembly and Senate. That recording, according to the newspaper, was made covertly by the governor’s team but without his knowledge as the opposing sides tried to sort through the aftermath of the May state supreme court decision.
“It’s been bad blood from the beginning,” one Republican strategist told The Daily Beast. “Even without coronavirus, it’s likely that Evers’ first term as governor, his first four years, was always going to be a partisan fight. Republicans are standing their ground... Evers has proven that he just can’t find a way to sit down with them. And that’s where this thing has melted down.”
What Evers is facing stands in stark contrast to how North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has so far beat back opposition in the electorally competitive state during the pandemic. Cooper, who defeated a controversial Republican incumbent in 2016, has found a determined pushback to his policies both from Republicans in the state and President Trump himself.
A case similar to Evers has been seen in Kansas however, where first term Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has found herself successfully pressured by the GOP-controlled state legislature to concede some power when it comes to her coronavirus approach, according to The Kansas City Star.
Like Kelly, who campaigned in her state on a return to normalcy after former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s frequently lambasted tenure as governor, Evers is seen by some as practicing a similar measured approach.
Evers “knows who he is,” Hintz said, as the pandemic continues on.
“He's not Barack Obama,” Hintz said. “But he's incredibly steady and incredibly reliable.”