David Michael Miller
It has been a matter of some frustration for Wisconsin Democrats that the gubernatorial election is always on the off year between presidential elections.
The frustration stems from the fact that the electorates in presidential and nonpresidential years are very different. Off-year voters tend to be older, whiter and more conservative. But in presidential years, well, Barack Obama won here twice and, in fact, you would have to go back to Ronald Reagan in 1984 to find the last time a Republican presidential candidate won in Wisconsin.
Democrats believe, with some validity, that their candidates for governor would have a much better chance if legislators back in the 1960s had made a different decision. From statehood in 1848 until the 1970 election, governors served two-year terms. The state constitution was amended in 1967 to allow for four-year terms beginning with the governor elected in 1970. But legislators at the time could have chosen 1968, putting the Wisconsin gubernatorial cycle together with the presidential vote.
I was curious why they decided to do that, so I asked a man who would know.
State Sen. Fred Risser of Madison has served longer than any legislator in the history of the nation. Risser has been in office almost 60 years. His nearest competitor had served 56 years and that person, well, let’s just say he isn’t in a position to add to his total these days.
Risser explained that it was a bi-partisan decision. “It was just felt at the time by both parties that we wanted the focus to be on the governor’s office, not on the presidency,” Risser told me. “We didn’t want the presidential election to overshadow the governor’s race.”
These days that sounds like a quaint idea. Both parties were motivated by what they thought would be best for Wisconsin; they wanted voters to focus on the important decision to elect a governor. Risser couldn’t recall any political calculation going into it. As far as he knew nobody crunched numbers to see which election would give an advantage to which party.
In fact, in 1967 Republicans controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature and the party’s candidate for president had won three of the last four elections. You would think that majority Republicans at the time would have wanted to put the governor’s race on the presidential year. Instead, they joined Democrats in going the other way.
Risser went on to observe that he had served under 12 governors — six Democrats and six Republicans — and that all but the current occupant “had the best interests of the state in mind.” Risser said that he didn’t always agree with them, but he never questioned their loyalty to the state. He suggested that Gov. Scott Walker is most concerned about his national ambitions rather than what’s good for Wisconsin.
Had Risser and his colleagues made a different decision back in the 1960s, Scott Walker may never have been governor.
You get a sense of fundamental fairness when you talk to Fred Risser; like he believes in the idea that you should fight for what you believe in — in his case, liberal policies — but make the fight a clean and fair one, play by the rules and apply them to yourself as well as the other guy.
It’s a genteel partisanship that has been utterly lost now. It’s unlikely that we’ll get the constitution changed to put our gubernatorial elections in the same year as those for president. The Republicans are in control and they have too much to lose. But maybe someday we’ll return to the spirit that informed the original decision.