By Dominique Paul Noth
Standing out from the hundreds of political email solicitations I receive each week was one March 18 from A Better Wisconsin Together (a new research and communication conduit for progressives) bluntly stating “It’s racist!-- Wisconsin is better than Ron Johnson,” and then asking for funding to oust him in 2022.
I applaud the sentiment – but I’m a political realist and I have to ask why Johnson is turning more Trump than Trump, defending the “good people” who brutalized police and the US Capitol Jan. 6, painting the Black Lives Matter people as akin to pagan devil worshippers and, I fully expect in the next few days, coloring Asian women as sex traffickers – all the old tired saws of bigoted white supremacists. Does he hope the voters in Wisconsin will rejoice in such racism?
Yes he does. He’s gambling that this sudden harsh extremism – from a Senate back-bencher who has been more relied on for keeping his mouth shut and his voting geared to the rich business world he came from – is just what will raise his shaky poll numbers. And cunning Ron, he has an escape hatch. If his numbers don’t go up, but instead go down because Wisconsin is not as racist as he hopes, he can always pull the plug on running for a third term, as he once vaguely promised.
The horror for Wisconsin is that we will be attracting some of the most outrageous Republican attacks in the next year and live with the confident GOP expectation of victory because of how extreme the GOP gerrymandering of districts in 2011. Statewide elections like governor or senator are one thing the Democrats can win though apparently only by small margins, but when you dip down into US House districts and state legislature districts, the GOP imbalance defies the real majority vote. In 2018 Democrats may have received 205,000 more votes than Republicans, but the GOP has a 27-person advantage in the Assembly. All this has caused a newspaper that has eschewed editorials to actually run one!
The split in the state is more than rural versus urban, more than white versus black and brown. Compare the House district maps, so understandably blockish before 2010. Then compare with the map used since 2010. A lot of communities will weep, but note the impact on minority isolation, particularly in the Milwaukee area
The Republican Party has happily made itself the ugliest side of the creature it was 50 years ago, elevating the racism that was a smaller but effective part of its message. That was the time the GOP attracted many Wisconsin families as it encouraged white flight from the big cities and warned the working folks that the Democrats would tax them to death.
Under the new GOP and the new map, the controlling taxing party is the GOP and the hostility has gotten worse, slandering gentler politicians like Gov. Tony Evers and US President Joe Biden as if this was still Walker's Wisconsin. The basic humanity of the Democrats in charge make the GOP even more excessive in their barrages because the party is finding it harder to convince voters.
Turns out the Wisconsin Republicans can still rely on gerrymandering to continue these attacks without much fear of losing. So they are attacking unions, attacking worker incomes, attacking immigration, attacking the mail-in ballots they once relied on and promoting tax cuts for the rich (their vision of the people responsible for creating jobs).
Meanwhile the Democrats tried to make headway with a big-tent approach, a sincerely meant but difficult to believe reaching out to GOP politicians. That sort of comity made the Democrats look weak and now many in their camp are demanding a harsher willingness to fight.
Once thing is for sure. The Republicans won’t give them any power. By the thinnest of margins, the Democrats did get power – led in the state offices by Evers and now led in the nation by Biden. Frankly, I knew Biden would win Nov. 3, 2020, though the networks had to wait painfully for the numbers to unfold over days. I believed, despite many doubting Democrats, that the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff would survive in Georgia, giving the Democrats the tiniest of margins in the Senate to go with the House.
But I also knew Mitch McConnell would begin immediately plotting to turn the Senate back in 2022. State legislatures controlled by Republicans would be the key – and they have introduced some 250 bills across the nation to make voting by minorities harder.
The Wisconsin bills to cut down on minority voters will be vetoed by Evers, but the gerrymander will be hard to change in the next year. The fate of the entire country hangs on a thread and Wisconsin already is showing frays.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue bill is actually astonishing out of the gate, collecting eight bills within it, any one of which would be a headline. But it didn’t get a single Republican vote, and the maneuvering is hot and heavy to bend the senate filibuster rules to see if anything else gets passed, since there is only one more time for anything else under the senate resolution rules of 50-50. Otherwise it has to be 60-40 under the sort of bills Biden wants. There may be more intelligent GOP senators around than Ron Johnson – there may be several who believe in voting rights and background checks and other issues the majority of America supports. The Democrats are hoping, perhaps in vain, that they can inch up on the filibuster rules.
But Johnson is testing the Trump hold on the American voters in Wisconsin. Progressive feelings about that November election are still partly glum because while seven million more voters went for Biden, Trump did get 73 million voters. Think about that. I suspect those supporters have shrunk in half, but 30 million is still a big deal that the GOP must deal with and coattails are a weird thing.
In states that Trump carried in the electoral college in November, there were better Democratic candidates running for the Senate for both incumbencies and open seats. Several even led in the polling. But every state whose electoral votes went to Trump picked the Republican senate candidate, just like every state that went for Biden picked the Democrat (Mark Kelly and John Hickenlooper).
When you put names to the losses, the pain magnifies, as I wrote about in October. Wasn’t Teresa Greenfield a better liked candidate in Iowa than Joni Ernst? Polls said so, but Trump carried the state and so did Ernst.
In 2022 Chuck Grassley will be 89 but he is thinking of running as he has since 1980 – who will take the field against him in a state that actually longs for Biden-like agriculture gains, more wind turbine business and climate change realities?
In Kansas it was Barbara Bollier, a former Republican physician supporting health care who led the polls against an Obamcare-hating doctor – and yet he won because Trump had the state wrapped up. Again and again this was the story – the Carolinas, Maine where the electoral college split, Texas where the female candidate against John Cronyn was less known but polled strongly, indicating where Texas might like to go.
This time Biden squeaked by with Senate control even as he dominated in the popular vote. But if the Republicans are no longer a national party, they still are a state party and they are going to use those levers for all they can, forcing the Democrats to contemplate a level of combat that the personality of their new leader has avoided.
All this current political tempest may be forcing change on a tried and true American voting pattern. Almost unconsciously voters have split control among the two main parties – still do even in an era where the ranks of Independent are growing, many of them fleeing according to polls from Republican ranks. But from fearing one party would run away with the process, the voters may be wishing the country would run rather than lamely waddle.
We may be reaching the point – contrasting Biden’s successes with Trump’s shenanigans – that the voters may be jumping more to the progressive side, forcing the Republicans to count even harder on their state controls to keep them in the game.
On March 16, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez broke a Senate custom on the floor to not use derogatory terms to describe a colleague, but he did and I applaud him. He called Johnson a racist.
Explained Menendez: “Look, I get no one likes to be called racist, but sometimes there's just no other way to describe the use of bigoted tropes that for generations have threatened black lives . . . I don't think the senator is ignorant of the fact that for centuries in this country white supremacy has thrived on using fear to justify oppression, discrimination and violence against people of color.”
Yet Johnson is depending on this approach as appealing to Wisconsin voters. Are we really the people he thinks?
About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org. In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association at its inception, he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.