Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler on his plans to win Wisconsin

By: - September 4, 2019 7:24 am
Wisconsin state flag

Wisconsin State Flag | Getty Images

The new state Democratic Party chair of Wisconsin, Ben Wikler, moved back to Madison to run for current job, leaving his role as Washington director for MoveOn and promising to use his organizing experience defending the Affordable Care Act to help Democrats retake his home state.

headshot of Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler
Ben Wikler

Sitting in his office across the street from the State Capitol, Wikler talked with Wisconsin Examiner about why he believes Wisconsin will go blue again in 2020, how he plans to make good on his pledge to advance Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ agenda in the face of a Republican-controlled Legislature that is intent on resisting and reducing the governor’s powers, what the national media get wrong about Wisconsin and his long-term vision of a progressive future.

What the pundits don’t understand about Wisconsin

Wisconsin is a microcosm of national politics, Wikler noted in his speech to the state party convention in June, just before he was elected by a large majority of delegates. Wisconsin’s urban/rural divide, the struggles of former manufacturing hubs in Milwaukee, Janesville and Racine, the dairy farm crisis, and a polarized electorate divided into some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation, put Wisconsin at the center of the nation’s major political battles. 

Wisconsin is also critical to Democratic hopes of winning back the White House in 2020.

The Washington Post recently reported that just four states will likely decide the outcome of the next presidential election. One of the four is Wisconsin. The others are Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. All four went for Donald Trump in 2016 by narrow margins.

“One obvious wild card is the identity of the Democratic nominee and how that shapes the general election debate,” the Post’s Dan Balz wrote. “Will that nominee be running on a platform that moderate voters see as too far left? Will that nominee be able to energize the party’s woke base and still appeal to white working-class voters?”

Wikler has a bone to pick with that sort of conventional national political analysis.

“The thing I’m frustrated by every day is the idea that you can’t fight for both white working class voters and voters of color,” he says. “Guess what? There are people of all races in the working class. And all of them want schools and jobs and safe communities and air they can breathe. And none of them like the effects of Trump’s actual policies—even if some of them think they might like Trump as a guy.”

As for the national debate about whether Democrats need to drive their base to turn out or persuade Trump voters to vote for the Democrat, Wikler says, “in Wisconsin we have to do both.”

“This is the thing,” he says, leaning forward in his chair, “we have to fight for every square inch of the state in 2020. We know that Trump is going to fight for every part of Wisconsin, but we also know that if we had cut down Trump’s margins in rural Wisconsin, if we had found a few more Trump-leery voters in the suburbs, if we had  pushed through the ceiling a little bit more with turnout in Dane County or if we’d come closer to Obama-level turnout in Milwaukee, we would have won in 2016.”

Since Trump’s strategy seems to be to try to turn out the most hardcore Republican voters, Wikler says, Democrats have to fight for everyone else.

The key to Wisconsin

Pundits and politicians could do worse than to listen to Wikler. He understands something about how Wisconsin voters respond to candidates. But he also seems to have his finger on a vision of politics that could get beyond the current, toxic level of division in the state and the nation, and actually bring people together. He is fundamentally optimistic about voters in his home state, about democracy and about politics as a vehicle for bringing out the best in people, uniting them around their common interests, instead of playing to their fears and resentments. In a hostile national political climate, Wikler’s enthusiasm is a breath of fresh air.

“The key thing to understand is that Wisconsin voters are less centrist than they are conflicted,” he says. “There’s a populist streak that has both leftwing and rightwing flavors that runs through the state. And the fundamental question that voters are asking is: ‘Is this person on my side?’”

Democrats need to make the case that they are “fighting for regular people against powerful interests,” he adds. 

That sounds a lot like Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who explained in a recent interview: “People across Wisconsin want solutions to their challenges and are not all that interested in Republican versus Democrat—they’re interested in who you’ll stand up to, and who you’ll stand up for.”

Baldwin, like Wikler, distinguishes between partisan fights and fights against “powerful interests,” including the pharmaceutical industry, where voters of different political parties are looking for a champion.

The similarity between Wikler’s perspective and Baldwin’s is “not a coincidence,” Wikler says. “It’s how we’ve won Wisconsin every time we’ve won, which is a lot of times.”

He includes President Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 among those wins, as well as Al Gore’s last-minute populist turnaround in 2000, which helped him win Wisconsin even while he was losing Florida. 

“It’s a state where showing up, being present in all different communities, rejecting the kind of false choices that cable pundits might like to inflict on a state like Wisconsin, and rolling up your sleeves can make the difference.”

Wikler promises that the state party, which has often appeared dysfunctional in recent years, will get serious about rolling up its sleeves under his leadership.

Putting Republicans on notice

All the tactics we used to defeat the repeal of the Affordable Care Act are available to us in the fights to come here in Wisconsin,” he says.

He plans a sustained, full-court press on Republicans between elections, showing up at town-hall meetings, and using online alerts to help constituents flood their representatives with emails, phone calls and text messages, getting out voters to hold officials accountable for their votes in the coming legislative session. 

But with Republican leaders using legislative and legal avenues to curtail the governor’s power and prevent him from enacting his agenda, how much can the Democrats really accomplish?

“When we fight we don’t always win, but we never win unless we fight,” Wikler quips.

He points to the recent budget battle, during which the Party deployed neighborhood teams across the state to knock on doors three times in every key Republican district to talk about the Medicaid expansion.  

“Republicans were hearing from their constituents how strongly they felt about the idea that everyone should have access to health care,” Wikler says. “And Republicans ignored their voters, but those voters will still be here in the fall of 2020.”

“If you don’t fight at every step, there’s no paper trail when Republicans betray their constituents,” he adds. “Sooner or later democracy will come home to roost.”

What about that gerrymandered map?

Many Democrats hoped that day would come after the 2020 census, with a Democratic governor in office for the drawing of new voting maps. But Republicans have reportedly considered making an end-run around Evers, using a joint resolution of the Legislature to redraw the maps without giving him an opportunity to sign or veto the new districts. That would fly in the face of decades of Supreme Court precedent. But Republicans now have a conservative-dominated Supreme Court. Pressing that advantage, the right-leaning Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty recently skipped the lower courts and went directly to the Supreme Court with a lawsuit seeking to limit Gov. Evers’ partial-veto powers.

Wikler says the Dems need to stay focused on the 2020 Supreme Court race, which will take place in the spring.

“Understanding the gravity of that race, and not taking anything for granted even if the polling looks good, is an absolute necessity,” he says.

He points to grassroots organizers all over Wisconsin who are building the case for fair maps, and “getting every elected group of human beings in the state to pass resolutions condemning gerrymandering.”

“All of that needs to clearly lead to electoral accountability for anyone who smashes the idea of representative democracy in the state,” Wikler says.

Widespread public support for fair, nonpartisan maps among Democrats and Republicans alike “should lead to Republicans feeling the sting even in these heavily gerrymandered districts. They should experience voters all throughout the next year telling them that even if they agree with them on other issues they can’t vote for them if they don’t support democracy in the state.”

And if Republicans do move toward a strategy to redistrict the state through a joint resolution, skipping the governor, “they need to face such a wall of public outrage that not only do they step back,” says Wikler, “but also the Supreme Court justices who are thinking about their careers as judges need to realize that game over for democracy would also be game over for their careers.”

Wikler sees an opportunity to hold Republicans accountable because many of them have aspirations to higher office, outside their safely gerrymandered districts. 

Taking aim at Sean Duffy’s seat

He points to the 7th Congressional District where Rep. Sean Duffy’s upcoming retirement will trigger a special election. State Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minoqua) is considering a run for the open seat. 

“[Tiffany] has worked with special interests to allow toxic sulfide mining. He has voted to send millions of dollars from the North Woods to fund private schools through vouchers. He’s voted against the Medicaid expansion, which his constituents urgently need,” says Wikler, who sounds like he’s preparing to campaign against Tiffany before he has even announced.  “Again and again on issues that are central to the lives of his own voters, he has betrayed them,” Wikler adds. “And if he wants to run for Congress, all of that is going to come crashing back down on his head.”

Duffy’s district went heavily for Trump in 2016. But it also has a long progressive history. Congressman Dave Obey represented the area for decades in Congress.  

“It’s a giant district that’s been trending Republican, thanks especially to all the gasoline that Trump and Walker poured on all the fires of division in the state,” says Wikler. “But the progressive roots run very deep there.”

The state Democratic Party recently hired its second field organizer in the 7th Congressional district. And local Democratic activists are energized, Wikler says: As soon as Duffy announced his resignationt, “My phone started blowing up.”

“I’m not discounting how difficult the gerrymander makes the battle,” says Wikler. “But the Democratic bench is frankly deeper than the Republican bench in Northern Wisconsin. And on the Republican side, if we get a candidate like Tom Tiffany, he barely crosses the electibility threshold in his own senate district.”

“I think Republicans in that district right now are trying to decide whether they are willing to expose themselves to the harsh sunlight of a nationally publicized election,” he adds, “or if they would rather stay in their cozy, carefully gerrymandered dens.”

Long-term goals

Given the extreme partisanship and gerrymandering in Wisconsin, and the difficulty of the political battles here, Wikler seems remarkably upbeat. 

Democratic victories in 2018 persuaded Wikler that Wisconsin politics can turn around, he says.

“I think that Republicans tried to break us,” he says. “Republicans tried to turn Wisconsin into a red state. They wanted to turn Wisconsin into Mississippi and create a permanently anti-democratic governing structure here.”

Wikler says the image of Wisconsin in his head is of the Republicans pushing people over the edge of a cliff, “and voters got together and grabbed the last tree branch on the cliff side and pulled themselves back up over the edge.”

After eight years during which former Gov. Scott Walker won three elections, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win here since Ronald Reagan, the Republicans gained a lock on all three branches of government, and hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the state from rightwing billionaires including the Koch brothers and Beloit billionaire businesswoman Diane Hendricks, “The fact that Democrats swept every statewide office for the first time since 1982 and are still standing, and that Wisconsin is the tipping point state in either direction in the Electoral College, instead of safely in the Republican column, is extraordinary,” says Wikler.

“It represents this deep well of resilience in the face of the vast arrayed might of organized money,” he adds. “And that’s what gives me hope—that this state has not given up even in the darkest winter.”

He points to other moments in history, including the post-Watergate elections of 1974, when Democrats swept into office in Wisconsin, and the historic 1911 legislative session, when Wisconsin’s triumphant progressives ended child labor, created workers compensation, enshrined a progressive tax system and set new standards for conservation and open government, among other first-in-the-nation achievements.

“We can have a session like that again,” says Wikler. ”And there are other states that are doing it right now. You can make so much change for the better, for things that people have been waiting for and crying out for for decades. It just takes work. It takes the willingness to put in the work for however many years it requires, and then, suddenly, you have the opportunity.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.