Mod Dems: A New Party Within a Party

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. 

How did we lose to this guy?

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. .  

Published by dave cieslewicz

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

8 thoughts on “Mod Dems: A New Party Within a Party

  1. The WI Dem’s hard core nominated Barnes, after clearing the field of potential challengers and a primary campaign that might have revealed Barnes’s weaknesses to more voters and wonks. Barnes best day was the day the last primary challenger backed out and before the hard facts of life got taken to him including not paying property taxes and his thoughtless posts.

    The consultants and his team allowed him to be pummeled with facts, some distorted , some lies, but allowed the attacks to drive down his positive numbers. Not paying property taxes, social media posts, being driven around like the Governor just didn’t sit with policy wonks. MKE also didn’t turn out for him which is a dissertation waiting to be written. I believe Evers got more votes in MKE than Barnes. Thats not race, thats credibility and pragmatic actions over a lifetime.

    Had he stayed as Lt. Governor, he could have soared as a second term Lt. Governor nationally, honed his abilities, closed weaknesses for another day. Gee Wiz, he might have even become Governor as health happens to everyone eventually. But, No, he and his team decided he could be elected U.S. Senator and instead, inquiring minds want to know what is his next line of work?

    Regarding the party within a party, see an earlier post. Great idea, third party is a variation of the idea. The challenges are the Dane/MKE/Brown CO activists that make their living being the Dem’s hard core. They aren’t giving up power willingly and will be brutal with those that challenge them. Also, young people swung this election and they didn’t vote for Barnes in the numbers he needed to win. Stunning.

    What is in the spotlight is Evers won. He has the veto. He has a budget surplus to work with and a question is does he want to govern in some fashion or has the Republican wing that has been sent packing with Michaels after they burned down R Kleefisch at the same time? They will propose a might legislative agenda of massive changes. Lobbyists and consultants will defend to battle the legislative efforts on income taxes, law and order, education, state agencies/DNR but all they will be doing is play ping pong back and forth with Evers on vetos and bill signings.

    The long dreamed veto proof legislature and the easy win the Governor’s office has proven to be a false dream. But the consultants on both sides are already holding meetings getting things lined up for a might policy battle, that most won’t follow, and there will be one line – the veto line. Winter is coming – changes mean incremental changes. We will have to see what the new Assembly and Senate Caucus really look like and if they are ready to govern/negotiate/oppose. Any way they go, Evers, gets the slam dunk.

    Both parties need a reassessment of capacity and alignment to WI voters, not the echo chambers they sit in an pontificate and collect 6 figure salaries. Both parties need to figure out how to win. Dem’s did with Evers because of his pragmatic leadership over time. It wasn’t that we liked what he stood for, what we knew was he will be thoughtful and pragmatic. Barnes – Let me be your far left Senator from a purple state…Johnson, he could have been beaten but to quote Neil Young, He was not and thats on the state dem’s not the national dems.

    In the end divided government proved preferable to the state and Ron Johnson winning shows how a guy that could have been beat was not by a group of “experts” and the wrong candidate.

    If they can admit that, maybe a party within a party has a shot.

    I for one think they prefer their professional gigs more than winning. Barnes is looking for a job. The hard core consultants are having coffee meetings and dinners planing legislative efforts with the new state budget hustling their next client to ask for their guidance and consultation.


  2. I agree, Mayor Dave. Let’s start this moderate democrat party! My only disagreement with your post is that I think racism was a factor in the election. That was the undercurrent of Ron Johnson’s campaign message, and it was very effective here in southwest Wisconsin. I do, however, agree with you that Mandela didn’t do an effective job countering that underlying current. I would call his response “naive.” As for Brad Pfaff’s loss, that is heartbreaking. Let’s get the seat back in 2024!


  3. Also, I think we make a mistake in believing that the ‘Black Vote’ in Milwaukee is some sort of monolith. There are serious rivalries among Black activists and elected officials. So much so that I would not be surprised to learn that some people sat out Barnes campaign, rather than see a political rival succeed. This doesn’t explain entirely the large drop-off versus the Evers vote, but I believe it was part of it. IMO.


  4. Another major problem that sank Barnes is that very few people knew much about him before the race and he let Johnson define him. They asked a GOP operative – I think it was Scott Jensen – on WPR in August, when Barnes held a nice lead, how the Republicans could raise RoJo’s popularity. Jensen basically admitted that they could not. He added, however, that they could certainly increase Barnes’ negatives and that’s exactly what they did. While Mandela was presenting positive ads, Johnson went negative. Sadly, it worked and we’re stuck with one of the most embarrassing senators of the 100. I’d say that Tommy Tuberville is worse but it’s a coin flip.


  5. re: Johnson/Barnes, I think Johnson’s honesty in how he portrayed himself was a factor. Post-election which is more likely:

    Johnson is engaging with law enforcement
    Barnes is engaging with farmers

    And as you said, what true politician is going to get anywhere near social security? I don’t see how you can be more honest than Johnson on that, especially when it’s the last thjng people want to hear.

    Finally does anyone believe Barnes ever subsisted on PB&Js?


    1. Well said. I found that listening to what he is actually saying rather than relying on extremely biased press interpretations very useful in forming my own opinion about him.


  6. Until the Democrats rid themselves of the corporatist rot deep within their innards, working on their ‘image’ will be lipstick on a sick pig. Identity politics are poopouri to cover up the smell. As long as the rot is there, it’s a choice between Pepsi or Coke.

    I was happy to vote for Ron Johnson this time around. Primarily because he was brave enough to allow and speak up for non-corporatist voices in the debacle that is our Covid policy.


  7. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more damning editorial than the one the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote against Ron Johnson. The case for a new senator was clear. All you had to do was stand up a winnable candidate. I agree that this loss is another reason to take a deep look at Democratic Party politics and policy. A party within a party? Interesting idea. Now you need someone to lead it. Ranked choice voting might help too, especially in primaries.

    In defense of Mandela Barnes, the attack ads were racist. I pity the voters who rely on attack ads on commercial television to inform/misinform their decisions. Especially in the Milwaukee/Waukesha area. The ads were stripping the varnish off of my cocktail table. You’d have thought that Barnes personally let Darrell Brooks out of jail so that he could wreak death and destruction on the dancing grannies of white small town America. It was Willie Horton all over again. I’d be interested in the break out of votes by race in the Milwaukee area.

    I couldn’t believe it, but the worst is entirely possible. Johnson operates from the bottom of the barrel. Nothing he said during the campaign was credible. Johnson’s denials of his own actions and statements were despicable. He clearly played a role in the Jan 6, 2021 efforts to overthrow the election. If his party was in control, he’d be leading the charge to cut mainstream true entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

    A mainstream candidate also needs the firepower to defend himself against attack ads. Being a nice guy is not the same as being a moderate. Tom Barrett, whom I consider a moderate and a very capable politician, proved that twice running for Governor. Can a person be a flaming moderate? It seems that’s what it will take. A number of candidates from around the country proved that competency and moderation can win in purple districts.

    I’m glad no trees were killed in writing this long winded comment. Thanks for the forum.


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