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Wars Within Wars in Divided Wisconsin

May. 14, 2014
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Conventional wisdom says Democrats don’t have much chance for success in the statewide legislative elections in November. The great thing about conventional wisdom is it’s so often so wildly wrong.

It’s certainly understandable that many people would think Democrats are at a major disadvantage in those elections. Corrupt Republican redistricting did everything possible to dishonestly stack the deck against Democrats.

The Republican chicanery worked so well in 2012 that Republicans actually increased their majority in the state Assembly to 60-39 even though Democratic candidates received more votes statewide than Republicans.

Because it’s an off-year election, 2014 will be even more difficult for Democrats. During presidential years, when voter turnout is at its highest, Wisconsin has voted solidly Democratic every four years ever since it went for Michael Dukakis over the first George Bush in 1988.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker got elected in 2010 because of the tea party backlash against the election of an African American president, but also because strong Democratic constituencies, including racial minorities and younger voters, are less likely to vote in off-year elections.

That’s why ever since Republicans took over the governor’s office and the Legislature, they’ve passed laws brazenly designed to prevent African Americans, Latinos and students from voting.

Fortunately, there are still state and federal judges who uphold the Constitution and the right to vote. Partly in defiance against the ugly Republican moves to take away their votes, Milwaukee and Madison turned out even stronger for President Barack Obama in 2012 than they had in 2008.

Democrats now have a solid chance in November in races for the state Senate, where Republicans have only an 18-15 majority. Because Senate districts are three times larger than Assembly districts, it’s harder for Republicans to gerrymander lines to make it impossible for Democrats to win.

Republicans gave Democrats an even better chance by driving out two Republican incumbents who were considered too moderate for today’s extreme, right-wing GOP—Sen. Dale Schultz from Richland Center and Sen. Mike Ellis from the Appleton district.

Democrats already have strong candidates, Penny Bernard Schaber in Appleton, Ernie Wittwer in Richland Center and Pat Bomhack in Spring Green.

In Sheboygan, Sen. Joe Leibham then became one of several tea party extremists hoping to replace retiring moderate Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Petri. That’s given popular Democratic activist Martha Lanning, who’s led community campaigns raising millions of dollars for schools and other area projects, a real shot at a third Senate seat.


GOP Wants to Suppress the Vote

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Democrats winning control of the state Senate. It’s the best opportunity Democrats have of gaining the power to stop the very worst legislation Republicans can dream up, which we already know can be very, very bad for everyone in Wisconsin except the very wealthy.

That’s why Democrats statewide will be concentrating funding and relentless get-out-the-vote efforts in just those few Senate districts that remain competitive.

Republicans already have done their best to destroy democracy by dividing the rest of the state into either overwhelmingly Republican districts or overwhelmingly Democratic ones.

Two other factors make 2014 much more positive for Democrats than it otherwise might seem. One is the Walker effect and the other is the extremism that is destroying the Republican Party from within.

Although Republicans like to pretend Walker is an extremely popular governor, that’s only half-true. Half of the state doesn’t like him at all.

The most recent Marquette University Law School poll showed Walker only a few points ahead of Democratic challenger Mary Burke, whom 60% of voters said they didn’t know enough about yet to judge.

Of Walker, about whom everyone in the state knows plenty, 47% of voters approved of his job performance and 47% disapproved.

The recent reporting by Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wisconsin’s extreme political polarization suggests Republicans aren’t even trying to win over voters anymore.

Their success depends solely on turning out more of their own intensely right-wing Republican voters in lower-turnout elections. That’s why they’re passing laws to lower turnout, especially among Democrats.

That also explains Republicans devouring their own. Moderate or independent Republicans don’t incite nearly enough hatred of the other side to build a crazed Republican turnout.

Nominating offensive tea party candidates who continue to drive women, African Americans, Latinos and young voters away from the party is ultimately a losing strategy for Republicans. But when have politicians ever looked further ahead than the next election?

The good news for Democrats in November, reported by Gilbert, is Wisconsin’s extreme political polarization actually increases voter turnout here, already among the highest in the nation.

Describing Wisconsin, Republican pollster Gene Ulm says: “When turnout is low, Republicans are successful. When it gets into the mid-50s, it’s dicey; then when it gets to 60, anything can happen.”

Conventional wisdom may apply in conventional times, but these are no longer those in Wisconsin.


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