Dems Can’t Be the Dane County Party

The census data came out yesterday. Now that the state has the numbers necessary to redraw Legislative and Congressional districts, we can start down a road of predictable moves and an uncertain, though unpromising, outcome.

Here’s what is almost certain to happen. Republicans will once again draw heavily gerrymandered maps designed to lock in their majorities for another decade, regardless of the will of the voters. As the saying goes, they’ll pick their voters instead of the other way around.

Gov. Tony Evers will veto those maps. Everybody goes to court. The only real question is, which court? If the issue is finally decided by a Federal court, the Democrats’ chances of getting more fair maps increase. If it’s decided by the state Supreme Court, it’s more likely the Republican maps will prevail.

There could be a wrinkle. Speaker Robin Vos has suggested that he may use a joint resolution to pass the maps. Since resolutions don’t require approval by the governor, Evers could be shut out of the process altogether. In that case, we get an extra lawsuit, with Democrats no doubt challenging the process in addition to the maps themselves.

But here’s the thing. While heavily gerrymandered maps are, in fact, deeply undemocratic, they’re not the only problem the Democrats have. Even if you draw the fairest maps possible, Democrats remain at a disadvantage — not nearly as dramatically disadvantaged as under the current maps, but still short of a majority in the Legislature if you go by the generic blue/red splits, regardless of the candidates.

That’s because Democrats tend to be more social. They cluster into deep blue liberal ghettos while the less social Republicans tend to spread out on their five acre lots. This makes it hard for even honest, well-intentioned map drawers to produce maps with lots of competitive districts. To do that you would have to, essentially, gerrymander. That is, you would have to draw wedge-shaped districts that dive deep and narrowly into Dane and Milwaukee counties and flair out into more conservative suburban and rural areas.

But that goes against the established legal criteria for map drawing. Districts are supposed to be as compact as possible and, to the greatest extent possible, keep communities of interest together. They also cannot be drawn in a way that dilutes racial minority voting strength. But that’s it. There is no legal standard that says the maps have to produce politically competitive districts.

Add to that the realization that Dane County is the fastest growing county in the state and you can start to see the problem. The Democratic Party has been retreating from rural and small town Wisconsin — in part because the maps for the last decade have made most of those districts noncompetitive anyway — and relying more on massive vote totals from Dane, and now to a lesser extent, Milwaukee counties.

And that dynamic feeds on itself. As the party relies on Dane County to deliver the knock-out vote totals in statewide races, it emphasizes policy positions and rhetoric designed to excite a liberal base, which only further alienates more moderate voters. This can work in statewide races for Governor, U.S. Senate, Attorney General and the like, but it is disastrous if your goal is to take back the state Senate or Assembly.

And it gets worse. As people with similar views live together in close proximity, they don’t have those views challenged and so, they become even more deeply ideological. To keep them excited and engaged the party needs to move even further to the left. Any party strategy that relies on big numbers out of Madison and Milwaukee is sure to fail pretty much everywhere else.

The obvious solution is for the party to strengthen its center-left. Emphasize issues like hard infrastructure (roads, bridges, high speed Internet), parts of the social safety net (the child tax credit, expansion of Medicare to cover eye, ear and dental care) and public safety (support police and police reform, but don’t “defund” them). And, importantly, deemphasize culture war issues. The more Democrats adopt the language of Critical Race Theory, the more they will lose.

But most crucial is for the party to not get caught up in policy details, but to keep hammering away at fundamental American values like hard work, equality (not equity), fairness, and personal freedom leavened with personal responsibility.

You are going to hear a lot in the coming months about how the Democrats just can’t win unless they get fair maps. That’s partially true, but only partially. Even with fair maps, Democrats have to hone their message to appeal to voters beyond Dane County.

So, in that way, fair maps would have a positive effect on both parties. With more competitive districts out there, the parties would have more reason to fight for the center, not just appeal to their most deeply ideological bases. But for the Democrats, because of the way they’ve arranged themselves on the landscape, they need to drive toward moderation, fair maps or not, in order to be successful.

What are the chances? An expert who is in the middle of the Democrat’s redistricting fight told me he puts the chances that the courts will come through at only one in three, at best. That’s why Evers needed to veto the budget and hold out for a nonpartisan redistricting process. He didn’t, and so here we are.

Assuming that this ends badly for the Dems — and for fundamental fairness — the party just can’t crawl under a rock for another ten years. It has to figure out a way to win even against these stiff odds. That means moving to the center.

Welcome to the 177th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “Dems Can’t Be the Dane County Party

  1. I honestly don’t agree holding the budget hostage would have worked but I agree with your larger point. In fact the problem is increasingly more specific, that it’s the Democratic Party of Madison. Maybe even just party of several blocks on the isthmus. The left activists of downtown provide so much of the energy of the party despite the fact that they cannot win elections even in the city.


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