A Case Study

Wisconsin is currently providing us with a lesson about the state of American democracy.

It isn’t just the arrogance of Republicans who are threatening to overturn the expressed will of the voters with a trumped-up impeachment of a state supreme court judge; the state is a case study for Democrats elsewhere whose voters face similarly manufactured limits on their ability to win elections.

Last December, just after the midterms, the Guardian ran a report on how Democrats had managed to fight back in what the article called “the nation’s most gerrymandered state.”

Ben Wikler spent so much time poring over polls ahead of the midterm elections that it eventually became too much to bear.

“I was throwing up with anxiety,” Wikler, the chair of Wisconsin’s Democratic party, confessed to the Guardian.

It wasn’t merely out of concern, common to Democrats nationwide in the run-up to the early November vote, that voters were set to give their candidates the traditional drubbing of the party in power, powered by Joe Biden’s unpopularity or the wobbly state of the economy.

Rather, Wikler feared that in Wisconsin his party was on the brink of something worse: permanent minority status in a state that is crucial to any presidential candidate’s path to the White House.

What the party faced in Wisconsin was dire: if Democratic Governor Tony Evers lost re-election, or if the state’s GOP achieved supermajority control of Wisconsin’s legislature, the GOP could have ensured that its electoral college votes never helped a Democrat win the White House.

As Wikler said, Wisconsin is “a state where Republicans have tried to engineer things to make it voter-proof.”

According to several studies, Wisconsin is the most gerrymandered state in the country, and the fourth most difficult state in which to cast a ballot. It also has laws that make it practically impossible to conduct voter registration drives.

But Wisconsin’s Republicans are looking to tighten access to polling places further, and passed a host of measures to do so, all of which fell to Evers’s veto pen. With a supermajority in the legislature, they would have been able to override his vetoes. In a speech to supporters, Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor, made it plain that if he was elected, the GOP “will never lose another election” in the state.

Amazingly, despite being faced with enormous structural barriers,  Evers was re-elected, and Wisconsin Democrats narrowly managed to keep Republicans from a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. Democrats’ success at standing their ground in Wisconsin was one of the most pleasant surprises the party experienced in the midterms.

What accounted for Evers’ robust win?

The fact that statewide races can’t be gerrymandered is obviously key. And according to various news sources, Evers had a clear advantage over Michels among those age 18 to 44 years old, an age cohort that made up more than a third of voters in Wisconsin.

Evers also had stronger support for the issues he ran on than Michels did.

The AP VoteCast survey showed the most important issue facing the country for Wisconsin voters was overwhelmingly the economy and jobs. However, Evers focused much of his campaign on abortion, which was only slightly more important to voters than the issue of crime, something Michels made a prominent theme of his candidacy.

Voters who cared most about the economy split their votes between the parties–but Wisconsin voters who said the abortion issue was very important to them were lopsidedly pro-choice. Evers attributed the strength of his win to that issue.

There is a lesson here for Indiana in next year’s statewide elections.

As with Wisconsin, Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering will be irrelevant in the upcoming statewide races. And–mirroring the Wisconsin gubernatorial contest–the Hoosier electorate cares about economic and public safety issues, but is divided on which party is best able to address those issues.

As in Wisconsin, however, Hoosiers who care about reproductive rights are lopsidedly pro-choice.

All but one of the five Republicans running for Governor are running ads professing their “pro-life” and “Christian faith” credentials. The already-endorsed Republican Senate candidate (Indiana’s male version of Margery Taylor Green) is a flat-out culture warrior who supports a ban on abortion with no exceptions, along with a multitude of other far-Right positions. (He recently called President Biden the “most corrupt person to ever occupy the White House.”  No kidding.)

I will grant that Indiana’s state Democratic party structure ranks somewhere between weak and “where the hell are you?” but the party has lucked out with strong and appealing statewide candidates–Jennifer McCormick for Governor and Marc Carmichael for U.S. Senate. Both  are on the right side of the issues Hoosier voters care about, and–if adequately funded– both can win next November.

We can learn from Wisconsin.


  1. People in Sheila’s age, family, legal, community, political and mid western experience cohort were among the first to notice this trend. Why? They understood the Constitution and all of it’s progeny, the laws as the “rules” that we collectively decided were safe from tyranny yet reasonable for a growing population in these borders to be collectively safe and comfortable.

    In other words, the countries early political leaders where very aware of class struggles under authoritarianism and were good enough visionaries to understand the consequences of publishing the Declaration of Independence (which was understandably a very hard sell.

    Me? I was busy learning to be a spouse and father and a student and an engineer and a teacher and a responsible citizen with early experience in north versus south culture.

    Sheila and I met, accidentally, and never yet in person, but the collision from my perspective changed my life.

    I had expected retirement to be more comfortable.

    Then I learned that cultural adaptation, the greatest teacher of all, was as new in my 60s as where all my previous adaptations.

  2. To borrow a quote from a TV drama; “The future is NOW!” What we are watching and hearing in the media today is the future the Trump MAGA, White Nationalist, Freedom Caucus minority has planned for our future. Trump admits this, if you can grit your teeth and pay attention to his words of truth, interspersed with his idiocy of preventing World War Two, Jeb Bush started the Iraq war and that Windtowers are killing whales. We do need to “cherry pick” through his speeches for what lies ahead; is he that stupid or is he smart enough to follow the words of W.C. Fields, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” We are doomed to forget the recent past from 2016 and will repeat it in 2024 if we do not stop them in November 2023.

  3. Many voters remain unengaged because they believe they should “get something” for their vote – a direct “positive” return to themselves. When that doesn’t happen, they give up and quit voting.
    Wisconsin should be an object lesson to the masses that one should ALWAYS vote because it could get a lot worse. Sometimes just “holding the line” is a huge tactical win.

  4. Marc’s website has a list of priorities and the issue listed as number one is his belief that women’s rights are human rights and that he will fight to codify Roe v Wade. Marc and everyone on his team need to make women’s bodily autonomy/pro-choice the most important issue when he speaks to groups. It may require stating the issue in different ways to different groups, but the end result must be that women must have the absolute right to make all decisions about their bodies.

    A question for the attorneys on this blog: Can Roe v Wade actually be codified since it was overturned by the Supreme Court?

  5. It appears clear that “Democracy” is expendable when it is inconvenient to Republicans, in any state!

  6. Sheila writes, “I will grant that Indiana’s state Democratic party structure ranks somewhere between weak and “where the hell are you?”

    This is an understatement.

    It’s sad that a governor would have to focus entirely on the abortion issue to get elected. It’s pathetic that in 2023, it’s still a primary political subject. Wake up, Hoosiers!

    Also, for Wisconsinites, you’d think they would react negatively toward having any party join the realm of a permanent minority. R and D should adamantly oppose any such situation, but a swing state as crucial as Wisconsin would be even more opposed.

    Jennifer and Marc should receive votes just because of their opposition in Indiana. We’ll see how it plays out in backward Hoosierville.

  7. Nancy, I’m not an attorney, but I have spent years working in government at all levels. What will happen if they codify Roe v Wade, is that the law will be challenged in Federal Court immediately by a group of state Attorneys General. The suit will request a stay of implementation until the case is decided. It will most likely be filed in Texas, where the stay will be granted. That will pretty much delay it until it gets to the same SCOTUS that deprived women of their rights in the first place. Unless there is an act of God that takes out only right wingers in black robes, which seems unlikely, we’re whistling in the wind.

  8. When a political entity is fundamentally corrupt and is, therefore, internally embarrassed by it and their lack of ideas about governing for the people they are supposed to represent, they must – indeed are compelled to – cheat, change the rules and alter the playing field to their advantage.

    Republicans are beholden to the Koch-type cheaters; how else do you think they got so rich? Hard work, my ass. The Republican funders mostly inherited their wealth from the elites from generations past. No wonder some suggest that we’re in a second gilded age. And therein lies the rotten roots of our political problems as a nation.

    No, Nancy Pelosi, we do NOT need a strong Republican party. They are part of a fascist cabal that intends to overthrow the government and destroy the Constitution. Wisconsin’s Republicans show the nation their intentions to do so every day. What we need is NO Republican party.

    I’m sure Todd will object, but I’d like to see a few years of one-party in control just to see how healthy (or not) we are as a people.

  9. Vernon,

    I’m not sure our political bodies are a good barometer for healthy Americans. Or, maybe it is since the Democracy Index is 25th in the world. As a democracy, we are failing. As a free press, we are also failing. I wonder if there is any correlation between the two.

  10. Peggy, thanks for your thoughts in answer to my question.

    Vernon – re your first paragraph – the Rs have perfected cheating and changing the rules. They are like the whining little kid that is losing the game. If they can’t win the game within the actual rules then they just make up new rules that will allow them to win.

    I am shocked at how some republican controlled legislatures are refusing to abide by the fair voting map rules that their state supreme courts have legally required. So far, they seem to be getting away with a refusal to obey the directives of their state supreme courts. Those legislatures have basically declared war on their own citizens.

  11. Perhaps today would be a good day to add four more justices to the Supreme Court in anticipation of an appeal from a codification of Roe, but how such an appeal may ultimately work out in the absence of such additions I don’t know. Since the present court has discarded the stare decisis doctrine, perhaps it would be easier to add four more justices to the court and reverse Dobbs, thus effectively reinstating Roe, but don’t bet the ranch on it. Poor women who live in criminalized abortion states and can’t afford to go to another state for such care or risk imprisonment for leaving the state for such purpose are clearly disadvantaged as opposed to rich women who can catch a plane to wherever for care. Equal Protection of the Laws? Hardly.

    I also gave some thought to whether out of state AGs have standing to bring an appeal from an attempted codification of Roe in view of the Supreme Court’s fragmentation of abortion into a state’s rights matter (e.g., does Rokita have standing to challenge Alaska’s abortion laws or salmon catch?). I think without knowing that the Supreme Court in Dobbs wanted to end abortion altogether but knew that such an edict would be ignored and decided to instead authorize Republican used car salesmen and women serving as legislators to make medical decisions for over fifty percent of those they were elected to serve.

    Since reproductive care should be a matter between women and their doctors and is a proven winner at the polls in both red and blue states, perhaps the Supreme Court’s plan will backfire a year from November if Democratic candidates for governor in elections hammer away on such issue and get themselves elected, while also perhaps ending super majorities and their ability to override executive vetoes in a refreshing return to Madisonian democracy. Let’s make it happen!

  12. Todd and Nancy:

    Thanks for your return comments. Maybe this is the time I once again say that I’m glad I’m old. I just hope I live a little longer to see, perhaps, a lurch in the correct direction.

    That won’t happen, of course, until the somnolent voter gets off his or her ass and actually pays attention and VOTES. If this change doesn’t happen in 2024, we may not be able to have anymore fair elections. That ends our experiment with democracy.

  13. Through gerrymandering and not allowing referendums on current issues, conservative legislatures are more out of touch with the concerns of majority of voters. If majority were able to see that there are a lot more people who think like they do, more would get done. Authoritarian systems keep the group divided so as not to allow consensus and distilling of their forced power.

  14. As we acknowledge that the state Democratic Party is weak, the next question is why and how do we strengthen it? Money is the obvious answer. How do we compete with the millions from the Koch brothers and their arms? Small donations are great but not enough.

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