MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker issued an executive order scheduling special elections to fill two vacant legislative seats Thursday, as Senate Republicans abandoned their efforts to pass a bill blocking the contests amid intense criticism that the GOP was trying to avoid adding to string of losses.
The seats have been vacant since December, when Walker appointed two Republican legislators to his administration. Walker has said the special elections would be a waste of taxpayer money with the seats coming up for election in the fall. Democrats have argued that Walker wants to avoid losing the seats to their party in a year that appears to favor Democrats.
A judge last week ordered Walker to call the elections by noon Thursday.
Walker responded by asking the 2nd District Court of Appeals on Wednesday to consider killing the order and rule immediately that he has until April 6 to call the elections, which would give the Legislature time to pass the bill. The appeals court quickly denied the request.
"Representative government and the election of our representatives are never 'unnecessary,' never a 'waste of taxpayer resources,' and the calling of the special elections are ... his 'obligation,'" Presiding Judge Paul F. Reilly wrote.
State attorneys had planned to ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservative justices, to set the April 6 deadline by noon Thursday. But Wisconsin Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin filed a letter late Wednesday afternoon saying Walker had decided not to seek relief from the Supreme Court at this time. No reason was given.
Walker's order set elections in both legislative districts for June 12, with primaries set for May 15 if needed. His office announced the order in a news release with no additional comments.
State law requires Walker to call special elections to fill legislative vacancies that occur prior to May in regular election years such as this one. The court orders prompted Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to introduce a bill that would prohibit special elections after the spring election in a regular election year. The measure would ensure that the two vacant seats wouldn't be filled until January.
Fitzgerald told the Senate elections committee during a hearing Wednesday that forcing Walker to schedule special elections now means candidates would have to campaign in both the special elections and the regular November elections at essentially the same time, confusing voters and wasting tax dollars.
"It couldn't be more transparent what's happening here," Kathleen Finnerty, chairwoman of the Door County Democratic Party, told the committee. "The governor is afraid of having a Democrat elected into this position. ... Do you know how surreal it is to sit in front of you without representation? It's demoralizing and unethical on your part."
Fitzgerald told WTMJ-AM minutes after Walker scheduled the elections that he was dropping efforts to move the bill forward because of the judge's order.
"The governor was boxed in. He couldn't go beyond noon today or the threat of contempt was hanging out there. We don't know what it would look like, but it's certainly not a good place to be."
Passing a bill to effectively cancel the elections would throw a "monkey wrench" into the process, Fitzgerald said, and would raise the prospect of having "another judge slapping us down."
Republicans have lost more than 30 legislative seats nationwide since President Donald Trump took office. One of them was in Wisconsin, where Democrat Patty Schachtner won an open state Senate seat in a traditionally Republican district in January. Walker branded her win a wake-up call for the GOP. And earlier this month, Democrat Conor Lamb, captured what been a reliably Republican congressional seat in Pennsylvania.
If Ripp and Lasee's open seats were filled in November, the winners wouldn't have been sworn in until January, leaving Ripp and Lasee's constituents unrepresented for more than a year.