The Party of Dane County Will Lose

It’s pretty much all over now. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has spoken and it has locked in another decade of Republican rule — unless Democrats figure out how to win again in rural and small town Wisconsin. 

Last week Justice Brian Hagedorn joined the court’s three liberals in selecting Gov. Tony Evers’ redistricting maps over an alternative set offered by Republicans. The GOP is so unhappy with the ruling that they appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That sounds like happier news than it is. Even Evers’ proposal was constrained by an earlier court ruling — this one with Hagedorn joining conservatives — that said the court would only consider maps that made the least change from the current, heavily gerrymandered maps that favor the GOP. Evers won over Hagedorn mostly because his maps moved about 60,000 fewer voters between Congressional districts than did the other plan. 

The only real gain for Democrats is that the southeastern Wisconsin Congressional seat now held by Republican Bryan Steil would join the southwestern Wisconsin seat held by Democrat Ron Kind, who is retiring, as a competitive district. Given the headwinds Democrats face, Republicans are likely to win both seats this year, but in better years for Democrats either or both could swing back their way. 

There’s also an argument to be made that the Evers plan makes it harder for Republicans to win a veto-proof majority in the Legislature. (That’s fine, but it’s like your professor telling you that, if you work really hard and apply yourself, you might be able to earn a D-minus.) 

Justice Brian Hagedorn sided with maps drawn by Democrats. But not before he voted to guarantee that they would lock in Republican majorities.

But otherwise, the court decision looks like it will maintain Republican advantages in about 60 of the 99 Assembly districts and in about 22 of the 33 Senate districts, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Republicans currently hold a 61-38 majority in the Assembly and a 21-12 edge in the Senate. 

No matter what the U.S. Supremes say about the appeal, there may still be some action in lower federal courts, but that’s unlikely to change the outcome much. The high court has ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering — which even the Evers plan arguably is since it’s based off of the 2011 maps — is not something that federal courts can take into account. 

The upshot is that, for all intents and purposes, we’re looking at another decade of maps that favor legislative Republicans at about the same rate as they have for the last 10 years. 

So, now what? Well, the Democrats cannot just spend the next decade whining about how they can’t win the hand that’s been dealt them. For one thing, it’s almost certain that at some point over the next decade (though I hope not this year) a Republican will win back the governor’s office. That will reopen the floodgates to a host of right-wing legislation, including draconian restrictions on abortion. And that will only be the worst of it. The environment, public education at every level, and tax fairness will all take hits. 

But for another thing, even if Democrats could somehow hold onto the executive residence for an entire decade, they will be able to accomplish very little without control of the Legislature. Evers has proven to be a decent goalie, but he can’t play offense because he’s up against a brick wall in the Legislature. He can’t even regain majorities on some governing citizen bodies, like the Natural Resources Board, because the Republican Senate won’t confirm his appointees. 

The answer is as clear as it is painful for “progressive” (I prefer to think of them as “hard-left”) Democrats. They have to trim their sails. The party has to reconnect to voters outside of Dane and Milwaukee counties, and it can’t do that with its current profile. In too many parts of the state and the nation the “D” next to a candidate’s name is toxic

President Joe Biden did a good job of showing the way in his State of the Union speech. To put it plainly, culture wars issues are losers for Democrats, so Biden largely avoided them. The party needs to deemphasize identity politics, climate change, guns and immigration. Biden largely stayed away from those issues or touched on them only lightly. 

As James Carville has pointed out, Democrats need to jettison all the faculty lounge language — white privilege, systemic racism, Latinx, and on and on and on. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you hear it on NPR, don’t say it. 

We also need to stop preaching at people about climate disasters. Drop the apocalyptic language. Just talk, as Biden did, about energy savings through weatherization for working families. Emphasize the jobs to be created in solar and wind and conservation. In fact, if you can expunge the phrase “climate change” from your vocabulary please do so now. Have you noticed that being apoplectic about it is getting us nowhere? 

There’s no point in even mentioning guns. Look, I’m a gun owner who is for the strongest gun control laws we can get. But you know what? Right now in Wisconsin and nationally the strongest gun control we can get is none. It’s a waste of time and political capital to even raise the issue. So don’t. 

What Democrats need to do is ask people what they care about and then talk about that in plain English, what former Obama aide David Shor has called “popularism.” But even polling can be misleading. For example, Democrats asked people what they thought about parts of Build Back Better, like free child care and paid family leave, and they found that those things were popular. But when, during the BBB debate, voters were asked an open-ended question about what was important to them, nobody mentioned family leave or child care. They talked about COVID and inflation.

So, it’s important to know what the top issues of the moment are for the bulk of voters, and speak directly to those. BBB was essentially a laundry list of what liberal activists thought Americans should want, not a list of things they actually most cared about at the moment. It wasn’t that BBB was unpopular; it was beside the point. 

Along these lines, I’ve been impressed by new Milwaukee Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson. He easily won his primary and will cruise to victory in April by emphasizing his concern about violent crime and reckless driving. It’s those kinds of immediate worries that other mayors like New York City’s Eric Adams and San Francisco’s London Breed have also hit on. Not incidentally, all three mayors are people of color. 

If the overwhelming margins in the recalls of three hard-left San Francisco school board members weren’t a wake-up call for Democrats, I don’t know what could be. By the way, the liberal Mayor Breed supported those recalls. 

So, if you’re a Dane County liberal and you don’t want to spend the next 10 years moping around, you need to get with the program. You need to understand that the state outside of your bubble just doesn’t think or talk like you do. That doesn’t make your fellow Wisconsinites bad or racist or dumb. I’m convinced that a fair number of people oppose liberal policies they would otherwise support just because they cannot stand liberals. 

It comes down to this, people. Do you want to wallow in your gerrymandered victimhood for another decade or do you want to figure out how to change so that you can govern again? 

A version of this post originally appeared in Isthmus.

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Published by dave cieslewicz

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

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