Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A winning strategy for Wisconsin Democrats can't be based on geography alone

We should reject a "geography strategy" in supporting progressive candidates, focusing more on candidates with winning policy ideas

Many Wisconsinites are focused on the election coming up in November, and rightly so. The presidential race is of dire consequence, and selecting the right leader is of great importance.

But for those worried about Wisconsin’s future in general, focus needs to be given to the 2018 elections as well.

In that year, Tammy Baldwin will be up for re-election to her U.S. Senate Seat. The governor’s seat will also be up for election, and it will be a prime time to challenge sitting Gov. Scott Walker, whose approval ratings have slipped in recent months.

The governorship is especially important because whoever wins in 2018 will have veto power over the redrawing of electoral maps following the 2020 U.S. Census. Democrats, should they win the governor’s seat and the legislature, have hinted they endorse a redistricting plan that is nonpartisan in nature, as opposed to the partisan and secretive way Republicans handled the 2010 Census redrawing.

But the Democrats’ bench is currently weak -- indeed, who they determine will go against Walker in 2018 is yet to be known. Some have speculated, but among Wisconsin citizens the name recognition just isn’t out there for any of the supposed candidates that could run.

When Scott Walker ran in 2010 he had already been putting his name out there years before. An unsuccessful bid in 2006 for his party’s nomination allowed him to garner “rising star” status, and publicity tours across the state (using Milwaukee County taxpayer dollars) allowed him to continue getting noticed by his base across the state.

Democrats don’t have a similar candidate with name recognition like that at this moment. But modern politics is funny: it doesn’t take years to cultivate a following anymore, and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin could take advantage of that.

Still, one thing troubles me about the upcoming gubernatorial election, and that’s the fact that many are saying we can’t run a candidate from Madison or Milwaukee.

I understand the strategy -- many outside of those two areas are wary of the “big city” candidates that come out of them. And I’ve experienced it: I’ve walked door-to-door in communities outside of Madison and Milwaukee, and have witnessed firsthand the resentment that some people have for those two cities.

But as a current Madison-area resident, as well as a former Milwaukeean, I’m irked by two conclusions that are drawn from this strategy.
  • The first is that geography, not policy and ideas presented by candidates, matters most to non-Madison and non-Milwaukee citizens. This plays right into the hands of Walker’s basic strategy to divide and conquer. It also says a lot more about what we think about voters outside of the two big cities -- that they care more about geography than policy. Picking a candidate JUST BECAUSE they’re outside of Madison and Milwaukee is going to be transparent to these individuals. The people outside of those two cities aren’t dumb -- and they deserve more respect than that.
  • The second conclusion that can be drawn from picking a candidate for governor outside of Madison/Milwaukee is that it discounts the people who reside within those two cities. The citizens of those two areas matter. We shouldn’t imply that they don’t by purposely looking to field candidates from beyond their borders.
We lose twice by saying we should only pick from outside Madison and Milwaukee. We transparently patronize the rural voters, and we demoralize the city voters.

I’m not saying we should ONLY put up candidates from cities either. If a candidate from beyond Madison or Milwaukee has good ideas that can win the hearts and minds of the electorate, we should be more than welcoming of them.

But that’s precisely what we should do for any candidate, regardless of their geographical background. The right candidate for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin isn’t from Alma or Wautoma, nor are they from Milwaukee or from Madison. The right candidate is the one who espouses the party’s general principles of lifting up the middle class, of protecting the rights of the people of this state, and fostering a positive vision for Wisconsin in the years ahead.

That person, whether they’re from a metropolitan or rural area, has to sell their ideas to everyone in the state. The strategy can’t be appeal to Madison and Milwaukee, but not the rural areas; nor can it be appeal to the rural communities, but not the big cities.

It’s not impossible to create a winning coalition of voters by appealing to both. Progressives in our state have done it in the past, and we can certainly do it again in the future. Tammy Baldwin did it in 2012, and we’re going to hope she "repeats" in 2018.

But we can’t win it by falling into the same old traps -- we can’t let the other side define who our candidates should be. If we have a great candidate from outside of Madison and Milwaukee, great. Let’s back that candidate up. And if we have a great candidate from inside either of those two cities, let’s back them up as well. But let’s not substitute a great candidate for a strategy based on geography alone.

Policies still matter to voters, inside and outside of our metropolitan areas. And the Democrats offer the best vision forward for both sets of voters.


  1. Great blog post, but you forgot to mention one thing...nobody in Wisconsin is asking for a primary challenger to Russ Feingold because Feingold is from a Madison suburb (specifically, Middleton). As someone from downstate Illinois, there is virtually no talk of pushing for a downstate-based candidate to run against Bruce Rauner for the sake of pushing for a downstate-based candidate.