The main argument for moving the date of Wisconsin's 2020 presidential primary is to give a conservative state Supreme Court justice a "better chance" on the ballot, but it's still not clear whether the Republican-led Senate will move forward with the proposal in a lame-duck special session, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Tuesday.
"Certainly I think there's many people that think that Justice (Dan) Kelly would have a better chance if there's not really this competitive Democrat primary for president. That's the concern, I think," Fitzgerald told reporters. "But I gotta be honest with you, I think the campaign would be just as concerned that that would be a criticism used against Kelly in the end … obviously a lot of it has to do with the political pieces to this whole equation."
The Juneau Republican spoke with reporters after Senate Republicans met privately in the state Capitol.
It was first reported earlier this month that Republican lawmakers were considering moving the state's 2020 presidential primary from April to March so it would no longer coincide with that year's state Supreme Court election. Kelly, who was appointed by Walker in 2016, will be on the ballot in April 2020.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who will be in office until Jan. 7 when Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers is sworn in, told reporters earlier this month that he is open to signing legislation to change the primary date.
As a former county executive, Walker said, he always thought it was "odd" that nonpartisan offices, like the Supreme Court seat, are on the same ballot as partisan candidates. Asked whether the change would benefit Kelly, Walker said "pundits will speculate one way or another."
But when Fitzgerald was asked why the change is being considered, the only reason he named was the argument that it would benefit Kelly.
Still, Fitzgerald said he thinks Kelly could "absolutely" win if the primary date is left unchanged.
Fitzgerald was set to meet with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and members of Walker's staff later Tuesday afternoon. Assembly Republicans also met privately on Tuesday.
City and county clerks have come out in droves to oppose moving the election, arguing it would lead to unnecessary costs and confusion. The change would mean voters would have three elections to vote in during the spring of 2020.
Under current law, one election will be held in February 2020 — a primary vote for the state Supreme Court seat and local elections — and one will follow in April. The April election would include general elections for the state Supreme Court and local offices along with the presidential primary vote. Under the proposed changes, a third election would be added — likely in March — and the presidential primary would be held on that date.
"I think people certainly are listening to their clerks and are aware of their concerns, and it’s pretty easy to see the logistical issues it could create including early voting in two elections at the same time," Fitzgerald said.
The changes could also complicate delegate allocations under rules established by the Republican Party of Wisconsin and Republican National Committee, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald downplayed the significance of other items being considered for the lame-duck session, categorizing the proposals as "inside baseball" for the Legislature.
Republicans are considering codifying into state law a work requirement for some adults who are insured through the state's BadgerCare Plus program, Fitzgerald said. The requirement was approved by President Donald Trump's administration, but Evers said last week he is considering ending the policy.
They might also look for a way to prevent incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul from making significant changes to the Department of Justice's Office of the Solicitor General, which Kaul pledged to downsize while on the campaign trail. Fitzgerald said lawmakers are "talking about what to do with it."
Lawmakers will likely make changes to the make-up of some boards, but Fitzgerald said those boards do not include the state Building Commission, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents or the boards for the Department of Natural Resources or Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
There has been "no discussion" about changing the process for redistricting before Evers takes office, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said he is "hopeful" the Senate can convene next week, but said it will be a "heavy lift" to get bills drafted quickly.
He offered a less optimistic outlook for a $100 million incentive package designed to prevent Kimberly-Clark from closing a plant in the Fox Valley. The bill was approved by the Assembly in February, but never got a Senate vote. In early October, Fitzgerald and Vos said they would call an extraordinary session to pass the bill in November.
Republicans currently hold an 18-15 majority in the Senate, which will grow to 19-14 when new members are sworn in next year. But Fitzgerald said Tuesday the bill likely only has the support of 10 or 11 Republican senators, meaning it would need a "significant amount" of Democratic votes to pass.
Fitzgerald said Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, has had some positive discussions with Democrats, but no Democrats have come forward to publicly support the bill.
"It's become clear that Republicans never intended this lame duck session to be about saving jobs at Kimberly Clark," Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement. "They haven't made any effort to build consensus and reach an agreement to keep these jobs in Wisconsin. Instead, this whole special session has been a ruse to rush through more partisan bills, rig elections and consolidate more power in the hands of Republican politicians."