Going into the midterms Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson was thought to be the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the nation. His approval ratings had long been under 40%, he had promised not to seek a third term and his public statements revealed an unhinged extremism that should have turned off Wisconsin’s independent voters. He even touched the third rail of American politics by talking about undermining the budget security of Social Security.
Yet, Johnson survived. So, what went wrong in Wisconsin? The simple answer is that Democrats nominated the wrong candidate. Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes was the most outspoken progressive among four candidates vying for the nomination. His social and traditional media statements over almost a decade sealed his fate before the first votes were cast.
Barnes had defended the concept of defunding the police, he had held up an “Abolish ICE” tee shirt on a social media post and he had been recorded as saying that the founding of America was “awful.” He tried to distance himself from those things, but his comments were on the record, they were used mercilessly by Johnson and the groups supporting him and Barnes never developed an effective response.
Two of Barnes’ three opponents in the primary – Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson and State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski – had a better chance of winning. As it was, even with all that baggage, Barnes came within 27,000 votes of defeating Johnson. But he ran 48,000 votes behind moderate Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who was reelected on the same ballot.
The hard-left line is that Barnes only lost because of racism. But Barnes himself pointed out during the campaign that Barack Obama had won here twice and easily both times. It’s also telling that Barnes ran slightly behind Evers in Milwaukee County and he ran a whopping 40,000 votes behind Tammy Baldwin’s 2018 showing there. It was hoped that Barnes, who is African American, would turn out the Black vote. A less controversial candidate almost certainly would have done that.
The problem in the primary was that Barnes was wildly popular with the very liberal activists in the Democratic Party. They knew he’d have an uphill battle against Johnson, but they just couldn’t help themselves.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to this one race in Wisconsin. Overall, the party’s image is trashed outside of major metro areas and college towns. For example, Rep. Tim Ryan was the perfect candidate to win back the open Senate seat in Ohio, but he could not overcome the negative image of his party label. Back here in Wisconsin, Brad Pfaff, the Democratic candidate in the swing Third Congressional District, was tailor made for that seat, but lost to an election denier.
The trouble is that the Democratic Party is defined by its activist base. A recent Pew Research survey found that only 15% of Democrats see themselves as “very liberal”, but they are active on social media, they hold the fundraisers, volunteer in the campaigns and shape the agenda and public image of the party. Those of us who think of ourselves as moderate or conservative Democrats make up about half of the party and yet we are all but silent.
To be successful in places like Wisconsin and Ohio and other crucial states the 85% of Democrats who do not see themselves as very liberal have to reshape the image of our party.
To do that we can take a page out of Wisconsin’s Progressive history. For almost half a century Wisconsin led the nation with a Progressive movement, led by “Fighting Bob” La Follette and then by his son Philip. But for most of their history and for all of the time that they were most influential, the Progressives were not their own party, but rather a subset of the Republican Party. The Progressives held their own conventions, had their own platforms and nominated their own candidates, but that was all leading up to trying to win Republican primaries.
By the time Progressives actually formed their own separate party they were already on the decline. That party folded in mid-century and was eventually subsumed into a reinvigorated Wisconsin Democratic Party.
This could be a template for frustrated moderate, conservative and practical liberal Democrats all over the country. We would never consider voting for the party of Trump and a third party movement would only take votes away from Democrats.
The answer might be a party within a party. The Moderate Democrats, like the Wisconsin Progressives of the early 20th century, could have their own platform and support their own candidates in Democratic primaries. If they failed to get their candidate the nomination they would still support the ultimate nominee. No harm would be done, but the overall effect would be to push the party back to the center.
It’s important to point out that this is exactly how the Progressives saw themselves. They thought of their movement as the voice of reason and moderation between stalwart Republicans and reactionary Democrats on their right and socialists and communists on their left.
Here in Wisconsin an organized Moderate Democratic movement could have delivered the nomination to one of the more electable candidates running to take on Johnson. And the result might have been that Ron Johnson, the most embarrassing politician to come out of our state since Joe McCarthy, would have been forced to keep his promise about not serving a third term. .