Monday, July 19, 2021


By Dominique Paul Noth

There are more voters in Wisconsin who lean toward Democratic policies than lean to the current weird makeup of the Republican Party. And it may make no difference.

Yes, theoretically there are more state votes backing Democratic candidates -- in total.  Yet the GOP dominates the legislature and the state’s highest and now highly partisan court, whose decisions constantly disturb my piece of mind.

So tilted by the last decade are the political scales that Democrats will have to work extra hard not to fall down in 2022 or even not to fall below what they achieved in the past, despite what looks like an advantage in numbers and actual success by the Democratic platform.

Is there still time or
interest in Tom Nelson
for US Senate race?
They must also resist those circular firing squads the Democrats tend to create.   That’s when good friends and people with similar viewpoints have to criticize each other to fight for a US Senate seat and even for a successful governorship and for what will now be a new lieutenant governor (this a race that has not yet taken final form but faces an August 2022 Democratic primary).

Progressives, liberals and moderates snipe at each other though they all in the end are pulling in the same direction.

Hopes for fair redistricting of the Assembly and state Senate have been shattered by the Republicans’ favorite toy – a biased Wisconsin Supreme Court that relies on money and philosophy from the bowels of the Republican apparatus.

Reversing lower court rulings in a case not yet decided (but clearly stating that Republicans are likely to win) the four conservatives on the high court who have relied on GOP money and power to get elected will let the Republican legislature hire private gerrymander-friendly lawyers at taxpayer expense to pursue its vision of redistricting maps, allowing thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to work against the taxpayers’  hope for fairer maps that reflect the state’s independent and  Democratic power!

State Republicans are trotting out the clout they have developed in changing the rules of elections since 2010.  At a time when Democratic policies are clearly gaining national popularity under Biden the Wisconsin GOP is relying on its aging structure to impose a grip on voters.  They may prove feeble in the future, but for now they are throwing down the gauntlet to Democrats who more blithely want to debate issues or weigh candidates -- as should be the custom in a democracy.  The Republicans are hoping to make these sorts of internal argument look like signs of weakness.

The Democrats do enjoy such dithering, and the media enjoys any fight among friends. The Republicans are simply happy to put a meaty thumb on the scale. They expect the Democrats to give up to their superior nastiness, polished over a decade.  As a new progressive action committee, Law Forward, points out, Wisconsin has the most partisan gerrymandering of state districts in the nation.

Even Marquette University, in poll watching sometimes criticized as too conservative, concedes the partisan nature of Wisconsin gerrymandering, though it often takes an “on the other hand” analysis to the complexities of developing fairer maps.  Rather typically of the “on the other hand” analysis, research fellow John Johnson flatly says: “There is no serious question that the State Assembly districts drawn in 2011 are an extreme Republican gerrymander. However, that fact does not establish how much better Democrats could have done under a fairer map.”

But that statement is also a succinct summary of the Democrats’ problem in motivating sympathizers. Few doubt that the obstinacy of the Republicans in the state legislature has slowed important gains for K-12 education, for COVID relief, for Medicaid expansion, for better transit solutions and on and on – all vital issues to the voters paying attention.  But in rural Wisconsin the GOP can still wave abortion issues, tax and spend myths and general generational beliefs about Republicans, as if the party hadn’t gone through a frightening  devolution into silliness in the age of Trump. 

The only hope is that the GOP underestimates the way Democrats wait till the last minute and don’t jump into lock step behind the candidate with the most money the way the Republicans do.  There may be later strength in the current tendency of Democrats, liberals and progressives to argue among themselves – and sometimes choose the candidate with the less funds and brighter personality!

For instance, in the race to take the US Senate seat away from Ron Johnson, the candidates don’t even know if it will be Rojo one of them will face! He is making noise and raising money as if he will run as the most Trumpian Republican in captivity, but if he doesn’t gain more than his current 25% in state polls, he may run for the hills, leaving the field to other candidates while almost all the Democrats are beating up on the eminently outrageous Rojo.  They may have to switch in midstream to a more coherent Republican presence.

The Democratic field for the Senate has become enormous but only one of the relative unknowns, physician Gillian Battino – she’s a Wausau radiologist – has made such an articulate presence in Q and A sessions that she is clearly steps ahead of such other newcomers as Steven Olikara, Adam Murphy and Peter Peckarsky, all of whom I expect to drop out.

The most experienced candidate is Tom Nelson, a former leader of the Assembly when it was in Democratic hands and two-term Outagamie County executive, an interesting combination of Russ Feingold style points and Bernie Sanders politics.  He also is a progressive who has won in rural territory, but his main chance is to creep up from the outside and be seen as  more in the vein of such former Democratic US senators as Bill Proxmire, Gaylord Nelson and Feingold.

Mandela expects to jump in
and change the
dynamics in US Senate race

There are two other experienced progressives in the race – state Sen. Chris Larson and state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, the former drawing heavily from Milwaukee, the latter heavily from Madison.  Both have reason to be miffed at Mandela Barnes, the current lieutenant governor who, if not announced at this writing, will soon leap into the race (he has such announcement events scheduled for July 20) – and both these candidates were in it in part because they thought he wasn’t.

Wisdom suggests they will not publicly say anything negative about Barnes, though both have  gently raised the criticism of  “lacking experience” against the little known candidate they, Nelson and Barnes have the most to worry about, Alex Lasry.

Do good vibes for Bucks
translate for Lasry?

Aside from genuine progressive credentials Lasry has the Bucks aura to wave about.  A Bucks vice president on leave of absence, son of hedge fund part-owner Marc Lasry – and hence the best heeled candidate in the race – he has the money and campaign team to speak out on every issue, plus the perception that he has something to do with the positive feeling the state has about the Bucks and their new home.   Your email box reflects the frequency of his messaging.  In fact, this is the strangest race because only by innuendo should the candidates criticize each other based on similar platforms.

History suggests that none of them should get into a spitting contest.

Recalling Doyle blunder

Back in the Gov. Jim Doyle era, that Democrat made his preferences clear for both attorney general and lieutenant governor (the choice voters have in a primary). His preferences were not chosen by the voters.  They went, rightly in my view, with the late Peg Lautenschlager for AG (she later ran into legal trouble that Doyle seized on to discredit her; her son, Josh Kaul, now holds the same office and deserves re-election) and the engaging Barbara Lawton as lieutenant governor.

They were both strong progressives that Doyle should have made more use of. Instead he wasted months stewing about losing his choices. 

Evers will now face a similar political situation and may be well advised to let the voters choose his LG running mate in an August primary.  He and Barnes were an effective one-two punch, with Barnes more nimble on social media and Evers more Biden-dogged in sticking to his guns against ridiculously negative  GOP legislation. Few in the public realized Evers and Barnes were not close personally and just checked in every week or so to orchestrate ideas.  Politics encourage convenient bedfellows.

Barnes has an independent streak – some would say stubborn – that make him an attractive progressive politician willing to take chances, but it’s a style that peeves some people. Many believe he thinks he is the automatic front-runner for US Senate, but I think he has to overcome the fiction that he is abandoning Evers.  Nor is it clear that he  can outlast Lasry’s money.  Clearly some African American politicians who have come out for Lasry are now in an awkward position given Barnes’ good image in the black community (he was an organizer and worked for Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope.)

Should Godlewski
switch races?

Actually, it might prove smart politics if Godlewski switched to running for lieutenant governor.

She would automatically be the hottest candidate with statewide drawing power, a contrast in styles but not in politics with Evers and well heeled in her own right (so known  that her Madison contingent may think she can win the Senate race, though I think the field is too tough).

Personalities are important in these state races and the final maps are unknown at this point for Assembly and state senate races (quite different than statewide contests for AG, treasurer, LG and governor).  In 2018 the Democrats contested more legislative seats and seem to intend the same energy in 2022 even if the maps don’t tilt their way.

But they have yet to recognize how hard-nosed they are going to have to be to make any gains. The GOP is even more desperate and nasty this time around. The Republicans  hope their better organized lesser numbers and hardened geography will make the difference.

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  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.