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.