Sending A Message

A recent article in the New York Times reminded me how dramatically political sorting has changed the electoral landscape.The lede focuses on just one of the article’s examples

Eric Genrich is running a full-throated campaign in support of abortion rights, reminding voters of his position at every turn and hammering his anti-abortion opponent in television ads. At a recent event, he featured an obstetrician who now commutes to a state where abortion is legal to treat patients and a local woman who traveled to Colorado to terminate a nonviable pregnancy.

There’s just one inconvenient reality: Mr. Genrich is running for re-election as mayor of Green Bay, Wis., an office that has nothing to do with abortion policy.

As the article goes on to detail, Genrich is just one of several candidates for municipal offices on the ballot this spring in races in Wisconsin, Chicago, St. Louis, Lincoln, Neb., and elsewhere “who are making their support for abortion rights — and often their opponent’s past opposition — a centerpiece of their campaigns, even though abortion policy in all of these places is decided at the state level.”

If the mountains of polling post-Dobbs are correct, this is a pretty transparent effort to hang an unpopular and very salient issue around the neck of Republican candidates, whether or not they will have any authority to weigh in on the issue.

I should be conflicted over the tactic, which falls under the old “sending a message” justification.  I used to tell my students that passing laws intended to “send a message,” laws that could only be selectively enforced–if at all–undermined the rule of law. Prime examples were the “anti-sodomy” laws in many states. In some states, those laws only applied to LGBTQ folks (a clear violation of equal protection and an equally clear invitation to selective enforcement). In others, the laws applied even to married couples,  theoretically inviting local magistrates into the conjugal bedroom to ensure proper fornication.

Since the real-world likelihood of that intrusion was something less than zero, the laws were usually defended as efforts to “send a message” and/or “set a standard for moral behavior.” What they really did was reduce respect for the rule of law.

Given the clear inability of municipal candidates to affect state-level abortion law, isn’t the use of a “hot” political issue a variety of sending a message? And if it is, is it any more defensible than the moral posturing of which I’ve previously disapproved?

Actually, it is different and defensible, partly because the political environment is different.

Thanks to gerrymandering, the Electoral College and various other anti-democratic practices, very few Americans are able to cast truly meaningful votes. That disenfranchisement is somewhat ameliorated in states that allow citizen referenda; in places like Indiana, where a massively-gerrymandered legislature is in thrall to a super-majority of the most retrograde MAGA Republicans, there is no possibility of an initiative or referendum and thus no mechanism available to a majority of citizens who disagree with whatever that legislature is doing.

Dobbs allows the states to grant or withhold what had for fifty years been deemed a fundamental right. Aside from all the other legal arguments about that decision, it rested on the premise that voters in each state would determine that state’s policies on the matter. But Americans no longer live in a democracy, if democracy is defined by majority rule.

As political life in America has become nationalized, Democratic strategists have recognized that– in today’s tribal politics– “the precise responsibilities of an office matter less than sending a strong signal to voters about one’s broader political loyalties.” Granted, there is also an element of “turnabout is fair play.” The Times notes that, for decades, local Republican candidates ran on issues like abortion, immigration and national security, despite having no power to affect any of those issues.

Of course, also for decades, political party affiliation didn’t track perfectly with positions on issues like abortion. Both parties had their racists and anti-racists, misogynists and advocates for gender equality,  homophobes and  LGBTQ allies. Partisan identity was more likely to signal differences on economic issues than cultural ones.

A position on reproductive choice is a pretty reliable indicator of a candidate’s worldview–a “marker” that tells voters where that candidate stands in the culture wars. Candidates’ approach to abortion serves to signal their likely perspectives on a broad array of issues.

Wisconsin is the most gerrymandered state in the country, but you can’t gerrymander a statewide election. Judge Protasiewicz’ sent a message by making her support for reproductive rights very clear; voters sent an equally clear message to the anti-choice Republicans who control that state.

It was a message that ought to resonate beyond Wisconsin and into 2024.


  1. Though these battles are good at riling up the female voting base, it takes a much stronger and broader coalition to move the needle. A state court justice in Wisconsin winning went against all odds (due to gerrymandering). I’m hearing that Wisconsin workers are also striking against oppression.

    The Republican Party made their bed and their subdued leader in court with only two “Republicans” (George Santos and MTG) showing him support, a true indication of peril in the air.

    Sadly, Democrats will use this to crank further to the right for the oligarchy. The party of democracy is now the party of oligarchy, including the Military-Industrial Complex. I still hear Dwight Eisenhower’s words on the radio and TV in 1961, warning about the MIC.

    The Kochs were correct; they drove the country too far-right, but it will take a while for the changes to sweep away the excrement. The Democratic Socialists need to make their case on social media because they will not get help from the Mainstream media.

    It would be interesting to see the polls in Wisconsin on where the “message got out!”

  2. Well, looking at the Chicago mayor’s race and Mr Johnson pulling out the win, and the Wisconsin supreme Court win by liberals with the abortion argument on the line, looks like a change is brewing.

  3. “Sending A Message” has never been more important than it is today (using the general term “today”) and TODAY, the day after Trump’s public arrest and arraignment. We have been calling for the sitting Republicans in House and Senate and those campaigning on Republican ballots to send their message regarding their support – or non-support – of Donald Trump and his MAGA White Nationalist, evangelic, borderline Fascist party who are blaring their full support of their candidate, now charged with 34 felonies. Even after the Judge recommended Trump dial back his violent threats and rhetoric yesterday during the arraignment; Trump and his sons almost immediately began sending the message to supporters to attack the Judge and her daughter.

    The mute and idle sitting Republicans in House and Senate are “Sending A Message” loud and clear that their support FOR Trump can be counted on because they will never speak against him or anything he stands for. They are quivering in fear of reprisal from the pro-Trump faction to protect their jobs and their paychecks. Anti-abortion support pales in comparison with the total loss of democracy, Rule of Law and ending the protecting of the Constitution of the UNITED States of America.

    FOLLOW THE MONEY! The tee shirts with the bogus mug shot of Trump, provided by Trump who was not forced to sit for a mug shot, were on sale for $47 during the arraignment. He begged for money after his indictment and received $17 MILLION; the profit from the tee shirts is not yet known. Todd wants to know “where the message got out” in Wisconsin; did he watch the message sent around the world yesterday? To quote Sheila; “It was a message that ought to resonate beyond Wisconsin and into 2024.” The abortion issue is but one of the many issues at stake throughout this nation; congratulations to Wisconsin, but Americans are in a life-or-death struggle in Primary Elections now. That struggle intensified yesterday in a New York City courtroom; the message given to Trump was ignored and we now need to heed his warning of “Death and Destruction” now that his arrest is official. He will be protected by the “Innocent till proven guilty” provided under the Constitution he seeks to end. There is a message in that fact.

  4. I sent that very message to the Carmel GOP City Councilman running for Mayor who knocked on my door seeking my vote. His argument, which I’m seeing and hearing among other GOP candidates for local offices, was essentially that local politics is different from national politics. I countered that he isn’t immune from the image of the national party unless he openly opposes its policies, which for obvious reasons he has never done. I asked him how he had accumulated a campaign war chest exceeding $500,000 and without hesitation he said that his donations mainly came from developers and businesses but that he told each donor they could not come to him for any special favors. My eye roll was nearly audible.

  5. I call it making the best use of the available material. If it gets the base excited enough to actually VOTE, I’m all for it.

  6. In my county, Republican candidates often run unopposed. All they need is an R after their name. If they reap its rewards they should accept the risks when the tide turns.

  7. In Wisconsin, the DEM outspent the GOPer by many multiples, mostly from outside the state.

    People are surprised that a liberal won in Chicago? Really…

    There is no better indicator of the lack of civic education in America when candidates talk about issues that the office they are running for has little impact on and the voters aim their votes from that logic. Identify and issue politics rule – not governance. Any wonder why there is so little real governance going on?

  8. You can’t govern if you do not get elected. If the issues most important to the electorate are national issues, you had best address those issues even if there will be nothing you can do about them once elected.

  9. Makes me glad (again) I fled Indiana for Maine in 2015… we not only have a Democratic woman governor, but Dems control both houses of our legislature AND we have citizen referenda on our ballots, both local and state-wide. That said around here (aside from one “slightly-centered” Republican senator we are about as Democrat as they come, and we citizens do have a loud, clear voice. We even vote on school board annual budgets! Is life better? I’d say for all we people supporting rights (LGBT, abortion, women, minorities, immigrant) it is indeed. Are taxes high since we have to pay the bills for things like shelters and special school classes and meals for those who cannot afford them? Sadly also yes, but what’s the old slogan: If you wanna play, you got to pay! And most Mainers are only too glad to do so!

  10. We can now add DeFascist’s destruction of tenure among the intelligencia to abortion as issues local politicians can do nothing about. Herr Ron wants each faculty member to be “evaluated” every five years on whether such professors are “productive,” and guess who decides what is productive? Politicians, and ultimately, Ron. Thus when tenured professors are fired for lack of “production,” if any remain to be fired, grad students at Florida’s universities will be taught by Sunday School teachers and political hacks, rendering such degrees granted the equivalent of those granted by Trump University (all assuming any warm bodies matriculate to Florida’s universities for “higher education” degrees).

    Mayor and county council candidates can do nothing about such atrocities – or can they? Why are their powers limited to chuckholes and Rotary Club speeches? After all, ordinary citizens who are not seeking public office, among whom I number, comment daily on issues we can do nothing about, so why are those who are seeking public office held to a different standard, one which would inform and educate the polity on their broader view of public issues from the UN through the environment through attracting corporate businesses to town, etc.? I should think that, on the contrary, any information voters can gather about a candidate for office about any and all issues and whether within his/her purview if elected would make for a better choice at the polls – and a plus for democracy.

  11. $65.3M spent by both parties in WI Supreme Court election. What further evidence do we need that Citizens United was the culmination of decades of GOP manipulation in their efforts to seize control of government at all levels? Think about the sources of that money and who benefits from it in the immediate and long runs.

    If anyone cares, listen to the alleged “concession” speech by Kelly, it was misogynistic sour grapes from a loser who is anything but a worthy opponent himself. He has obviously taking a page from tfg in attacking anything and anyone who dares express an opposition opinion of any kind. The voters have spoken, no matter the amount of money spent to deliver the messages.

    We have already been deluged with media messaging by the GOP candidate running for Mayor of Indianapolis. He has attacked the current administration as being “soft on crime” without offering any remedies other than “leadership”. Typical move by the GOP is to undercut/defund/defame any positive policy then call into question the effectiveness of said policy in justifying their own actions. The same strategy they use against criminal justice, education, healthcare, housing, infrastructure maintenance, etc., etc., etc. The fact that voters in this state have no referendum option to push back, are gerrymandered to insure GOP dominance at almost every level of governance is not a surprise to anyone paying attention.

    I, too, am glad I’m old.

  12. It’s about time Democrat candidates fight the republicans by using the culture wars they created. Deep red Indiana candidates have campaigned on culture issues for several elections because they know it gets their voters to the polls. Yes, turnabout is fair play.

  13. Theresa Bowers is 100% correct. Donald Trump, conditions in the House and Senate with McCarthy, MTG and McConnell controlling action at the federal level, the Catholic ruled Supreme Court of the United States of America, lax gun laws across the country with mass shootings, the possibility of losing Social Security, Medicare and decent, affordable health care, ever rising taxes…all national issues. Do you believe those issues do not effect your city and state, or even those living out of the country, do you really believe they do not effect you and your family personally? That is the Republican “trickle down” effect on all of us.

  14. It makes total sense that local candidates’ stands on big issues like abortion be known because those with aspirations to power use low level local offices as spring boards. Better to nip it in the bud.

    Oh, and “all politics are local.”

  15. its another voice that is tired of the nationalism and hate brewing. if Green Bay has such a brew in the street, maybe reality is setting in. so hes a mayor, he can justifiably speak in regards to the piece by piece dam making by the right. when a left leaning person speaks out today,it seems moot. the voice has not been loud enough. the idiots on the right have teamed up with loudmouth ignorance and now its in the halls of our democracy. words here are imtelligent,educated and,limited to those that like here, in the closet of discussion. any issue today
    should be discussed in a loud voice,with educated and fact based discussion with the right wing ignorance. decorrum be damned.
    in a recent discussion with a local, a well respected small buisness, seems the shop i am doing buisness at pitted me against him.(he didnt know my political stand) his spew was all about god and loathing to the point of hate, at anyone whos a liberal,or non trump. the typical commie etc was along with Biden being a pusshead. then we were introduced as himself and my progressive Bernie posture. the only rant he made was all about god and whos right. anology after religious anology spewed hate in his rightious god fearing tongue(typical fox like knowlege and a wall built around it). the fight began when he claimed half the people in this country were scabs who dont work and live off his taxes. the owner of said shop, knows how i stand,and maybe he wanted to see the halfs talk it out, except his was in a loud voice,until i crashed his party. upon dropping a jaw dropping whos not working montif, i explained that everyone i know across America,and who they know,are all working. wheres the welfare kings? the welfare kings are the reason why you dont have a better profit margin because every item you need to do you bids and buisness are against the demanded profit margins of the corps you allowed to merge and elliminate compitition between buisnesses. billionaires gather far more welfare from you,your buisness and our goverment bacause the now have designed it that way. and you voted for it while your blinded by hate and meaningless anologies. they are laughing at you the small buisness while the shareholders and billionaires reap,er, rape you as you worry about how someone smells or looks like,try looking at why we dont have a living wage. name me one republican who suppote a living wage over a minnimum wage that keeps thier lobbyists flush? he asked my where i expected to be when i die.,easy,in a box rotting in the ground,i dont believe in a god.the shop owner and former shop owner pointed at me and agreed and left the room. cya.. i walked away. i appologized to the owner for my spouting off, as i was not aware of his devout religious stand. dont appologize,he needed a reality check.even though heated, this sure beat hiding behind a social media window and being annymous. I respect a educated mouth, some are the best damn comedians that ever spoke. (bruce,williams,Carlin)but the issue is, we dont have enough up front educated people in office who will rock the boat. its better than a hitleresque approach from a congressional party,with a bigger mouth that rants,its the new fascist party on the right. FY mccarthy

  16. I see Prof. Kennedy’s point but it is from the perspective of a previous attorney and professor of law and an intellectual who researchers and is passionate about this topic. The majority of Americans are civically ignorant, most are just trying to survive daily thus they do not have the time to do a deep dive on each person at the local level, state, and Federal level. Some probably didn’t take a civics class if it was offered in high school and so they just don’t know

    So, while it is true the local person may not have any direct influence on the example of abortion laws in their state–it is one of those barometers that tells someone what aisle they stand on.

    We got to start winning and as a Dem our messaging has sucked for years and so we need to change. I don’t want to get into the sewers of the GOP, but we have to meet people where they are and we are when it comes to understanding civics/gov’t/etc…a pretty stupid nation

  17. “If they reap its rewards they should accept the risks when the tide turns.” This is not
    how these bast…s operate.
    I hope that the win in Wisconsin is sending a loud, and valid, message to the rest of the

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