In the political powder keg of 2011, Wisconsin redistricting passed without protest

Jankowski created a program called REDMAP: The Redistricting Majority Project. By funneling national money into local districts where the numbers suggested Republicans could win, the group’s goal was to flip state legislatures and give the GOP the power to draw the next set of maps.

“We use data and objective research, we didn’t have to actually meet the candidates to know what we could do,” Jankowski told NPR’s Planet Money in 2018. 

Jankowski’s group was methodical and targeted. They got involved all over the country in races where people didn’t necessarily expect it, including districts in Wisconsin.

Leading up to Election Day, most people expect Republicans to do well. In midterm elections when one party controls everything, the pendulum tends to swing back the other way.

But on election night, when results started rolling in, it was a red wave. Plenty of states got swept up, but nowhere did it hit harder than in Wisconsin. 

In the governor’s race, Walker handily beat Democrat Tom Barrett. In the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Ron Johnson beat progressive icon Russ Feingold. Republicans flipped Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, and in the state Legislature, Republicans captured majorities in the Senate and Assembly.

Republicans Scott Walker, left, and Ron Johnson celebrate their elections to the Wisconsin governorship and U.S. Senate, respectively, on Nov. 2, 2010. Jeffrey Phelps/Mike Roemer/AP Photo

The night was full of surprises. The Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate both lost their races. 

This included Russ Decker, the powerful majority leader of the Wisconsin state Senate. His race was especially surprising because people didn’t realize he was vulnerable. 

But Jankowski did. After REDMAP’s polling suggested Decker could be beat, the group swooped in and campaigned against him. Looking back, Jankowski said the red wave would have happened with or without REDMAP, but in races like Decker’s, it made a big difference. 

“It was a great year in 2010. There’s no question that Republicans would have been in a good spot in redistricting without REDMAP,” he said at a Harvard forum in 2017. “But I don’t think Wisconsin would have happened.”

Wisconsin Republicans had won more than just one election on Nov. 2, 2010. They’d won the biggest political prize of all: the power to draw the maps that would shape elections for the next decade. 

The map room

Among the people watching election results closely in 2010 was Republican strategist Joe Handrick.

Handrick had decades of experience in politics. He ran his first campaign for the state Legislature when he was still in college in the 1980s, eventually winning seats in the state Assembly and Senate, not to mention a stint as chairman of the Northwoods town of Minocqua. 

Handrick’s interest in politics goes back even further.

“It probably happened sophomore year in high school when I came to the realization that I was never going to be a starter on the football team, and I was never going to be a starter on the cross country team,” Handrick said. “But boy, I was good at figuring out how to get elected to the student council.” 

Joe Handrick in Johnson Creek, Wis. Handrick has decades of experience in Wisconsin politics and was brought on as a redistricting expert when Republicans were drawing new maps in 2011. Angela Major/WPR

When Republicans won in 2010, Handrick knew it was a big deal for his party because he specialized in redistricting. He worked on maps for Wisconsin Republicans in the 1991 and 2001 redistricting cycles.

He was so highly regarded by Republicans, that they enlisted him again for the 2011 redistricting cycle, but the chain of command was a little bit different. Technically speaking, Handrick was hired by a law firm, that was hired by another law firm, that was hired by Republican legislative leaders to help with the map-drawing. 

“So I was basically a contract hire,” he said. 

Two Republican legislative aides joined Handrick — Tad Ottman, who worked for Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Adam Foltz, who worked for Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.

Instead of working from the Capitol, they set up shop across the street at the private law firm Michael Best & Friedrich. They called their office “the map room.”

The Fitzgeralds, who are brothers, were responsible for setting the agenda for everything that went through the Legislature. But for redistricting, they used a tactic that’s not typical for most legislation. 

They forced every rank-and-file Republican lawmaker to sign confidentiality agreements, which some people have called “secrecy oaths.”

Instead of working on the new maps at the Capitol, Republicans set up shop in a sleek glass office building across the street at the private law firm Michael Best & Friedrich. They called their office “the map room.” Angela Major/WPR

One by one, each GOP senator and representative visited this law firm to look at their district, and their district only. Under the terms of the confidentiality agreements, they had to keep it private.

Looking back, Handrick said he wouldn’t have done it that way, but it wasn’t his call. 

“I think it made the legislators look bad. It made it look like they were trying to hide something,” Handrick said. “As one of the mapmakers, I don’t want to hide anything. I think I’m producing really good work.”

Traditional redistricting principles 

Handrick said he had a specific assignment, to create a map that would pass court muster. Because even when there’s single-party control, courts can still be involved in redistricting.

In those cases, courts often look at whether a map meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. It has to make sure that the voice of minority communities gets heard, and that they can vote for the candidates they want.

This is one of Handrick’s specialties: making sure a map meets this rule by drawing what are known as majority-minority districts.

“My source of selfish pride has always been that this kid from up north has been able to have a real and tangible role in helping improve minority representation in Wisconsin,” he said.

Handrick and the other mapmakers have to balance a set of traditional redistricting principles. Districts have to be equal in population, compact, contiguous, respectful of so-called “communities of interest” and local boundary lines, among other criteria. 

“I’ve had a real good knack for being able to take the complex, competing criteria and make them work together,” he said.

Some of these principles are loosely defined. Take compactness, the idea that a district shouldn’t be too spread out. The U.S. Supreme Court measures this with what it calls an “eyeball approach.” They know it when they see it.

The term “communities of interest” is even harder to define. The idea is to keep people with “common interests” together, but one person’s view of what this means can be quite a bit different than another’s.

Sometimes these principles contradict each other, and mapmakers prioritize one over another. 

For example, Handrick emphasizes compactness. He said funny-shaped districts are how you know a map is gerrymandered.

However, some other mapmakers disagree, including Keith Gaddie, who worked with Handrick on the 2011 map.

Gaddie, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, was a redistricting consultant who was hired to work all over the country, including Wisconsin. He has written several books about politics. In his 2004 book “Born to Run: Origins of the Political Career,” he wrote an entire chapter about Handrick.