LANSING, Mich. — When Michigan Republicans began moving legislation last week to limit the power of newly elected Democratic officials, some liberal activists shouted “shame!” through the Capitol rotunda while others trailed legislators with boom microphones, live-streaming their interactions online to make them uncomfortable.
But if many on the left see a power grab underway in this state and a similar one in Wisconsin, Michigan’s incoming Democratic governor sees something more: political possibility.
“This gamesmanship will keep voters and activists active through the 2020 election,” said Gretchen Whitmer, who takes office on Jan. 1. Referring to Republicans, she added, “They’re thinking short-term.”
The continuing legislative maneuvers in Michigan and Wisconsin are part of a broader war for power in the Midwest, a politically prized region for both parties — but especially for Republicans, who are trying to dilute Democratic control ahead of bigger battles. The G.O.P., which lost the House in November as well as four key governorships in the Midwest, depends on its gerrymandered districts in the region for a trove of seats in both Congress and state legislatures. Without these safe seats, they would be unlikely to attempt such last-minute tactics.
But now, with incoming Democratic governors set to have veto power over the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census, a handful of states are confronting either court challenges to the existing districts or new, more equitable rules for drawing the next decade of legislative boundaries. In Michigan, voters this year approved an independent redistricting commission, but Republican lawmakers are using the current lame duck session to try to curb the new Democratic secretary of state’s implementation of it.
The Republican efforts could hurt the party’s image with moderate voters in a region that President Trump considers crucial for his 2020 re-election effort, and where his standing has fallen in suburbs that he would need to carry again to win. Yet G.O.P. leaders are determined to push ahead, fearing that their decade-long dominance in the Midwest is coming to an end as newly elected Democrats and the prospect of more competitive districts threaten to shift the balance of power.
Republicans remain poised to keep control of some of the region’s state legislatures and many of their congressional seats in the coming years — the continued clustering of Democratic votes in urban areas ensures a baseline of conservative strength elsewhere. But their efforts to limit executive branch authority in Michigan and Wisconsin may only exacerbate voter anger at a political class that faces little accountability because of the safe seats they fashioned for themselves.
“These are not arcane process issues,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist. “This goes to a fundamental defiance of the will of voters, essentially thumbing your nose at voters.”
In Wisconsin, Republican state legislators are using a lame duck session to limit the authority of the new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, while also expanding legislative authority and cutting back on early voting in the state. In Michigan, Republican lawmakers are attempting to dilute the power of Ms. Whitmer and the new Democratic attorney general and secretary of state, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson, while also attempting to water down ballot measures voters passed last month that would expand voting access and create an independent redistricting commission.
Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature in the two states and will continue to do so next year.
“The root of this is that the clock is ticking, and you get it done now or it’s going to be hard in some of those states with a Democratic governor,” said Nick Everhart, an Ohio-based Republican strategist, noting that legislators may not be so eager to consolidate power when they or their successors are representing more competitive districts in the next decade. “Who wants to take those votes in a potentially different world in ’21 or ’22?”
The more fundamental risk for Republicans is that voters are increasingly savvy about issues like gerrymandering, voting rights and campaign finance, which were once thought to be of great interest to elites but of little relevance to most citizens. Those are some of the issues at stake in the G.O.P. bills under consideration this month.
Many voters have become more supportive of a nonpartisan approach to redistricting, following years of gerrymanders that carved up states into impregnable red and blue districts and led to more political polarization rather than cooperation. Four states last month approved ballot measures that would create some form of an independent redistricting commission.
Some leading Republicans believe their party is tempting an even greater backlash than they saw in 2018 if they defy the wishes of an electorate increasingly attuned to fairness and angered by what figures as different as President Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders have denounced as “a rigged system.”
Frank LaRose, a Republican and Ohio’s newly elected secretary of state, called it “tough love for the party, but it’s what the voters are starting to expect and demand from us.” A former state senator, Mr. LaRose recalled that when he first began advocating for redistricting reform seven years ago, “folks’ eyes would roll back in their head, but it’s becoming more of a mainstream issue and it’s not just the League of Women Voters crowd or political science students.”
Or, as the Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, put it: “The people are driving the change.”
In Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, federal judges may also drive change. There are pending cases from each of the three states challenging their existing gerrymandered maps, whether congressional, state legislative or both. And even if the cases are all thrown out, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio will still likely have more balanced district lines in the next decade: Voters in each state this year overhauled their redistricting process to ensure more fairly drawn seats.
“There’s no incentive for bipartisan cooperation at this juncture,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, noting that statehouse Republicans can ram bills through on a party-line basis. “But I could see that changing dramatically in the next decade, to all of our benefit.”
Midwestern Republicans do not deny that they could face a more balanced political map, upending the dominance they have enjoyed since the 2010 election. Yet an uncertain future is not reason enough to restrain themselves now, said Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly and one of the architects of the lame duck intervention, noting that the first election under the new maps will not be until 2022.
“That’s four years away,” said Mr. Vos, a Republican, adding that he expected Mr. Evers, the governor-elect, to reject whatever map they fashion. “I would be surprised if he did not veto what we do,” he said.
Running candidates in districts crafted entirely by Republicans in 2011, Wisconsin Democrats this year won 53 percent of the vote in State Assembly races but only captured 36 percent of the seats (and they only gained a single seat).
But Mr. Vos pointed out that Republicans have won State Assembly majorities with court-drawn maps in recent decades and argued they could do so again.
The reason for the G.O.P.’s dominance, said Lori Wortz, a longtime Michigan Republican strategist, is that Democrats are increasingly strong in high-density areas but continue to lose support in more rural localities — a divide that all but ensures a number of safe Republican seats no matter how legislative maps are carved.
“Republican votes tend to be more spread out and Democratic votes tend to be more concentrated,” Ms. Wortz said. “Whether the lines are drawn by this commission, the Legislature or the courts, they’ll come up with similar results.”
But it’s the voters in between urban and rural areas who pose the most peril to Republicans: The Trump-era drift of suburban voters away from the G.O.P. not only threatens his own re-election, it also jeopardizes his party’s grip on statehouse power. And, Democrats say, Republicans are only compounding their difficulties in these fast-growing, largely college-educated communities by grasping for ways to retain power, whether it is gerrymandering, limiting voting access or trying to pass bills at the 11th hour to shift authority away from the executive branch.
“It’s the only way they can try to continue to be competitive,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor who helped run a redistricting-oriented Democratic group this year, noting his party’s gains with the growing parts of the electorate. “But it’s why people hate politics and politicians.”
And Mr. Evers, in an interview Saturday, echoed his fellow governor-elect in Michigan, suggesting Republicans would pay a price for their lame duck tactics.
“People have had it with hyperpartisan behavior,” he said, nodding to his defeat of Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican who led Wisconsin for the last eight years. “That’s what I ran on.”
In Michigan, Democrats are confronting not just gerrymandered maps and diminished strength in rural areas, but also the state’s term limits law, which forces lawmakers out after three terms in the House and two in the Senate.
Democrats believe the constant turnover only emboldens Republicans, because many of the lawmakers will not personally face voters in the next campaign cycle.
“The way the system works, there’s little we can do about it,” said Jim Ananich, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate.
Ms. Whitmer said she and outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder, an often-pragmatic Republican, have had “broad” discussions about the bills limiting the power of incoming Democrats. She said she remains hopeful — but not confident — he will defy members of his own party and reject them. The two have met weekly since the election.
“It’s my hope that he lives up to his rhetoric in regards to civility and respect for the institution,” she said.
But for progressive activists, the legislative maneuvering in Lansing and in Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, has been instructive.
Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator who leads a liberal group focused on taking back statehouses, said the lame duck sessions illustrate the lingering cost of the Democrats’ inattention to state and local politics.
But Mr. Squadron was more hopeful about the lessons of the last few weeks — and what it could portend for Democrats if they are able to compete in statehouse races in the years to come.
“The way to change politics in people’s lives is to change state legislatures,” he said. “Oh, and by the way, you’ll also change voting rights and gerrymandering along the way.”