On paper, Wisconsin is a crucial state for progressive change in 2020 – reflected in the respected Marquette University poll that shows Trump far behind Democratic presidential leaders and tied more than a year ahead with the second tier of candidates.
But look into that poll more deeply and you are aware that Wisconsin is the lagging hind end of the progressive charge, a limping straggler unable to make up its mind on important statewide contests. And without local enthusiasm, the progressive wave will crash against rocky shores.
With a new and admittedly moderate Democratic governor, Tony Evers, and bright prospects for better public education and forward steps on health care, Wisconsin seemed a prime place for Democrats to pick up House seats and state legislative ones. Despite extensive gerrymandering dating to 2011 that seemed to ensure Republican succession, long established GOP names are scrambling for the exits.
There’s Rep. Sean Duffy, a former lumberjack and reality star wannabe whose wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, is a Fox personality. He is nationally known for complaining that his House salary representing the large 7th District is not enough to support his lifestyle and eight kids. Now after nine years in Congress he has announced he is quitting in September. The announced reason that many doubt (since there are hidden motives in any political move) is that his pregnant wife has a baby with what many suspect Duffy of having, given his statements about immigrants and Trump actions – a hole in the heart.
It would be noble to abandon politics to care for the unborn, though his eight born children – ranging up in age to 19 -- may wonder where he has been. But it has thrown his broad northeast Wisconsin district into a scramble by both parties. State GOP legislators are bluntly getting out of the way for an ecological hater, state Sen. Tom Tiffany, to announce his run.
Given Tiffany’s anti-ecological reputation he may seem a strange choice for rural farm counties (Ashland, Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, St. Croix, Clark, Douglas, Florence, Forest, Iron, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Oneida, Polk, Price, Rusk, Sawyer, Taylor, Vilas, Washburn and parts of Chippewa, Jackson, Juneau, Monroe and Wood) but the injuries to farmland from tariffs, the crippling of public education funding and blatant attempts to buy goodwill are only now radiating into politics.
So it’s not a shoo-in for the GOP – in fact many see an opportunity for the Democrats. In the years of B.G. (Before Gerrymandering), this was David Obey territory, a Democrat who ruled the House from 1969 to 2011. There is a strong core of devout Democrats in pockets of the community. Yet the Democrats typically are having trouble getting their act together though former Duffy opponent Pat Kreitlow remains popular.
Closer to Milwaukee (draw a ring around the city and include all of Jefferson and Washington counties plus key portions of Milwaukee, Waukesha, Dodge, and Walworth), the left should be shouting hallelujah! A veteran GOP name in the House since Jimmy Carter’s presidency is retiring years after he should have.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner – long chairman of House Judiciary Committee whose career is a mix of support for defendant rights and resistance to civil rights – is finally hanging it up. This has produced a lunge of Republicans who have long coveted his seat and a slow march of interesting Democrats trying to determine if they have enough support. A fine Democratic candidate from 2018, Tom Palzewicz, immediately announced he would try again. But his sizable 2018 loss (62 to 38 %) disheartened many Democrats.
While 2018 was a great year around the nation for Democrats, Wisconsin came up constantly short. It was the only state in the nation in which the party receiving the majority of House votes (Democrats) emerged with a minority of congressional seats, and the gerrymandering problem increased in state legislative races.
As a consequence, the unknown Paul Ryan clone whose first term in the House has done nothing to make him more than a shadow, Bryan Steil, feels firmly ensconced in District 1 (Kenosha County, Racine County, most of Walworth County, and portions of Rock County, Waukesha and Milwaukee – in other words the Democratic bastions packed together in 2011 are more and more encircled by conservatives). He easily beat populist Randy Bryce once Bryce’s brushes with the courts were publicized.
Similarly, while many Milwaukeeans know good people living to their north, that District 6 (dipping down into Milwaukee County’s River Hills) has been structured to protect Republicans (giving the more liberal North Shore suburbs to the 4th District’s formidable Gwen Moore). Though labeled even by his own party as one of its most partisan and dumbest sounding members, Glenn Grothman seems so firmly placed in this east-north district that even the personable and well-heeled nephew of Herb Kohl, Dan, lost 55-45 % in 2018.
Once SCOTUS refused to look into the Wisconsin gerrymandering in its Rucho vs. Common Cause decision this year – what many regard as a stunning abdication of the highest court’s responsibility to the Constitution – Wisconsin voters were doomed to push beyond their natural strength to make inroads in US House and state legislative contests. Their willingness to fight against the odds is still in question.
Voter indifference to local politics is also reflected in the Marquette poll that on the surface looked so terrible for Trump. Maybe not so much when readers drill down.
More than half of the 800 surveyed couldn't offer an opinion, favorable or un, on Republican legislative leaders, though clearly they are trying to destroy the new governor’s gains. Fifty-five percent said Wisconsin is headed in the right direction while 37% said it was on the wrong track. Talk to people on the street and such numbers easily flip, one reason why the Marquette poll is viewed uncomfortably in progressive circles and still heralded by conservatives.
State Democrats aren’t that worried about the presidential race since Trump has so much in-grown opposition if voters pay attention to the facts. But they concede the electorate has to be shaken into awareness in 2020 on localized contests. It is a year where there is no Senate race in on the ballot and the Republicans, despite departures, still dominate the House and the state’s two legislative chambers.