By Ari Berman for RollingStone Magazine
On a quiet, tree-lined street in Racine, Wisconsin, in a neighborhood known as the Danish Village for its Scandinavian ancestry, sits a two-story white house with a large American flag hanging from the porch and a pro-police “We Back the Badge” sign in the yard. It’s the home of Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a 65-year-old former cop whose blond hair resembles that of Dennis the Menace.
Two houses to the south, Wanggaard’s state Senate district – the 21st – abruptly cuts off to exclude the rest of the largely Democratic neighborhood. This used to be one of the state’s most competitive Senate districts, encompassing all of rectangular-shaped Racine County, a 50/50 mix of urban and rural communities in southeast Wisconsin. But since the GOP gained control of the state’s government in 2010, and redrew the legislative maps, the district is now shaped like a horseshoe, pulling in the Republican countryside of Racine and Kenosha counties while excluding heavily Democratic areas – except for the block where Wanggaard lives. “It’s a prime example of how a party in power chose a district for their guy,” says John Lehman, a Democrat who represented the 21st before Wanggaard.
To say that Republicans are facing a toxic political environment heading into the 2018 midterm elections would be a massive understatement. Donald Trump is the most unpopular president at this stage of his term in modern American history. Just three in 10 Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, and Democratic voters’ enthusiasm to vote in 2018 tops Republican voters’ by 17 points. But because of sophisticated gerrymandering, Republicans who should be vulnerable, like Wanggaard, have been seen as untouchable. “It’s more challenging than it should be because of the way the districts are drawn,” says Jenni Dye, who works for Democrats in Wisconsin’s state Senate. Wanggaard is among 11 Republican state senators up for re-election in 2018, but no one has stepped forward to challenge him yet.
The gerrymandering in Wisconsin, which experts call among the most extreme in U.S. history, is but one part of Republicans’ stealth plan to stay in office. Since Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican Legislature took power, they’ve also introduced some of the country’s harshest voting restrictions, passing laws that make it harder for Democratic-leaning constituencies to register to vote and cast ballots. At the same time, the state has become the “Wild West of dark money,” according to Lisa Graves, a senior fellow at the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, with Republican politicians like Walker raising unprecedented sums from billionaire donors to finance their campaigns.
“All three of these things have to be seen as part of a whole,” says Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s attorney general, who founded the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2016 to challenge Republican gerrymandering efforts. “Unregulated dark money combined with these voter-ID laws combined with gerrymandering is inconsistent with how our nation’s system is supposed to be set up. American citizens ought to be concerned about the state of our democracy. We could end up with a system where a well-financed minority that has views inconsistent with the vast majority of the American people runs this country.”Ari Berman, RollingStone, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights
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