If you’re a Democrat, there’s not much to look forward to in 2022. Since World War II the party in the White House has lost an average of 25 seats in the House in the midterm elections, but when the president’s approval rating is under 50 percent, as Biden’s is currently, that soars to 37 seats. It seems Democrats would do well just to hew to that average.
And the one thing that could save them would be horrible. I’ll get to that in a moment. Here are some questions that will be answered this year.
- Is Mandela Barnes inevitable?
It feels to me like Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes is in the process of locking up the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. None of the other major candidates — State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson — seem to be getting much traction. Barnes is popular among primary voters, but is he the best candidate to take on Sen. Ron Johnson or whomever the Republicans ultimately put up? I’m not sure. I tend to think the better candidate for the general is Nelson because he already wins in a red part of the state, but I think he’s a long shot for the nomination.
2. Has RoJo been bluffing all along?
The inscrutable Johnson is running for a third term, unless he’s not. I can’t get inside this guy’s head, and if I did can you imagine the years of therapy I’d need just to function again? He might be running out the clock in order to hand the nomination to Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay). Or maybe he will go back on his pledge not to seek a third term in order to save us from vaccines and elections that work. Democrats would probably be better off if he did run again. A recent Marquette Law School poll found that a majority (53 percent) of voters want somebody else.
3. Is this the best they can do?
That same poll found Gov. Tony Evers was underwater with voters as well. Fifty-two percent said they’d vote for a different candidate. But will they vote for a candidate as different as former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch? I thought after Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in Virginia that Kleefisch would get the memo, don a fleece vest, and go all suburban on us. Nope. She began her campaign as a wild-eyed Trumpster and she has not wavered. If voters have a choice between the low-key Evers and the excitable Kleefisch, the Democrat might just stand up to the red wave after all. I keep thinking that the Youngkin-like lobbyist and Tommy Thompson acolyte Bill McCoshen might reverse his decision not to join the race, but right now it looks like Kleefisch is sewing it up. Evers might want to encourage contributions to her campaign.
4. Just how bad will it be?
If the expected red wave turns out to be a tsunami, as some are predicting, just how bad will it be in Wisconsin? Even if the wave is just average for a midterm, there’s little chance that Democrats can hold onto the 3rd Congressional District held by the moderate Ron Kind, who is retiring. Kind won in 2020 by only a couple of points and in a district that Trump carried for the second time. And if Evers does go down that probably means that the Democratic Senate candidate, Attorney General Josh Kaul, and the state constitutional offices will fall to Republicans as well. The one possible exception is Secretary of State Doug La Follette, who seems to survive every time. La Follette might well find himself joining Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is not up this year, as the only statewide Democrats left standing.
5. Can the U.S. Supreme Court reverse the wave?
Just how bad do things look? It could be that the only hope to reverse the trend would be a Supreme Court decision reversing or gutting Roe v. Wade. That would mean that Evers would be the only thing standing between women and some very extreme abortion restrictions. Democrats tend not to turn out in off-year elections, but this would motivate them like nothing else. It would also likely move independent and suburban women voters into the Democratic column. And anything that boosts Evers may help down the ticket as well. Nobody wants to win this way, but if there’s any kind of silver lining to something as traumatic as reversing Roe, this would be it.
6. Is there any hope for fair maps?
With the state Supreme Court’s decision last week to stick close to the existing heavily gerrymandered legislative and congressional maps favoring Republicans, there seems to be little hope of improvement. The game’s not quite over as a federal court could still overrule the state court. But if the federal courts didn’t strike down the current maps and the new ones hew closely to those, what are the chances? Kaul seems to think they’re not good. The court’s ruling “almost certainly ends all hope for anything remotely resembling fair maps in Wisconsin for at least the next decade — and quite possibly much longer,” he said.
7. Can the Democrats adjust?
This is a question not just for next year, but for the next decade. Here’s the problem. Even under Evers’ fair maps commission plan Republicans would be likely to have a 55-44 majority in the Assembly, only somewhat down from the current 61-38 that their gerrymandered maps produce for them now. And even some Democrats opposed the Evers commission maps on the grounds that they diluted minority representation. The takeaway is that, while Democrats can sometimes win statewide races by running up big numbers in Madison and Milwaukee, they’ll never take back the Legislature if they can’t win outside of the big cities. And they can’t win outside of the big cities while they continue to come off as the party of identity politics. To make any kind of progress the party will have to move its image to the center, but that runs counter to the passions of the party’s activists and most of its donors.
8. How serious is the backlash?
One indication of just how enduring and deep the gap is between Dane County and most of the rest of the state may come this spring. On the local level, I’m watching the Madison school board races in April. Three of the seven seats are up and at least one will be open. I’m sensing a lot of unease out there about violence in schools and this board’s decision to remove school resource officers from high schools. Will there be a candidate running on a platform of restoring order, and can that candidate win? If so, it would demonstrate that there are limits to how far left even liberal Madison is willing to go.
If you found all this just thoroughly depressing let me leave you with a little bit of hope. I could be wrong. In fact, I usually am. Just ask Presidents Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Gary Hart, etc.
Events might conspire to save the Democrats — and democracy. Our economy, as well as our society and our culture, might adapt to the realization that COVID is with us and needs to be managed. That could reinvigorate the economic recovery and lower the temperature on the debates over masks and vaccinations. Inflation might prove to be transitory after all once supply chains get sorted out. Voters could see tangible improvements in roads and broadband by the summer because of Biden’s infrastructure bill. The Democrats could pass some elements of the President’s Build Back Better agenda and voters could see those benefits before next November. The Supreme Court might do the least possible damage to reproductive rights but just enough to motivate Democratic voters and move suburban voters their way. And the Republicans could nominate zealous extremists like Kleefisch, Johnson and, in the 3rd Congressional District, Derrick Van Orden.
So, see? There is hope. But if I were you, I’d lower your expectations. Expect coal under your political tree this year and, if you should get a waffle iron instead, count that as a lovely gift.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.
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