What Wisconsin could show the nation

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Editor’s note: Today, together with our sister publications in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania we are kicking off a series of news stories and commentary to bring you an on-the-ground view of our politically divided states, the issues that matter most to people here, and what’s missing in reports from the national media who parachute in for the 2020 election frenzy. Check back for more from our reporters and editors and send us your thoughts.

It’s understandable that political observers with a front-row seat to the meltdown underway in our nation’s capital are nervously eyeing voters in flyover land, wondering how we will vote this time.

But the daily news cycle that drives outrage among people who are paying close attention to national politics doesn’t faze the dairy farmers I’ve spoken with. It’s not that these rural voters embrace the toxic narcissism or racist rhetoric that is dividing our country. Their Midwestern values do not include the aggressive displays of rudeness practiced by the president and his enablers in Congress. They simply see the drama and theater of politics as far away and they take it with a big grain of salt.

Many farmers I’ve talked to during a crisis that is putting family farms out of business at a rate of two per day see that neither political party has done much to stop massive consolidation in agriculture, a race to the bottom in prices that is killing dairy farms, or a general sense of being looked down on and forgotten.

If the president is obnoxious, some rural voters figure, well, at least he is throwing a rock at the system on behalf of the “forgotten men and women of this country” he promised to represent.

Disgusted by both parties

Mark Johnson, a dairy farmer who lives near the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota, told me, “If I’d had a better choice, I wouldn’t have voted for either of the candidates [in 2016].” Donald Trump, he said was “the better evil. … He’s awful radical, but at least he’s trying to make things happen. He’s not sitting on his thumbs. He’s getting people talking.”

Johnson’s neighbor, dairy farmer Dana Allen-Tully, agreed. “I’m disgusted with both parties,” she said. “The only one I see who wants to fix something is him [Trump].”

National political writers often see white, rural voters in the Midwest as more inclined to support a safe, centrist Democrat — as opposed to young urbanites who might rally behind a barn-burning socialist.

But in Wisconsin, there are independent, populist voters in both rural and urban parts of the state.

“The key thing to understand is that Wisconsin voters are less centrist than they are conflicted,” says Ben Wikler, chair of the state Democratic Party. “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?’ ”

In the 2016 primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 13 points in Wisconsin. In the general election, rural voters all along the state’s Western edge who helped re-elect Barack Obama in 2012 voted for Trump. 

The pattern here is that candidates perceived as championing the interests of ordinary people against the establishment do well in Wisconsin. 

‘People across Wisconsin want solutions’

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, an out lesbian and unabashed progressive who supports universal health care, is one of the most successful politicians in Wisconsin history. She won her Senate race in 2018 by a healthy 10-point margin, meeting with voters all over the state and talking in detail about how to support farming and manufacturing.

As Baldwin explains, “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.”

Justin Myers, who runs the “permanent progressive field program” of For Our Future, a labor-funded group that is knocking on doors in seven swing states, reinforces this idea that setting aside the national political fights and connecting with voters on the issues they care about is the way to get people involved in politics.

For Our Future is putting eight field offices and hundreds of staff into every area of Wisconsin to ask voters what matters to them.

And, Myers takes pains to note, they are staying year-round and building relationships with grassroots organizations here, including Milwaukee BLOC and Voces de la Frontera — local neighborhood empowerment and immigrant-rights groups — not just parachuting in for a single election.

“If you look at a lot of the paid messaging that’s happening,” says Myers, “it’s about national issues, for the most part, right? You’ll see an ad about Social Security this year. We’re going to see an ad about some national issue. But at the end of the day, there is a large subset of voters that don’t consume media, specifically political media in the way that we do. So you’re missing them when you’re talking about those issues.”

“If you want to enlarge the electorate, which is what we want to do,” Myers says, “We want to connect on hyperlocal issues.”

Getting over ‘divide and conquer’

That’s the approach taken by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who beat former Gov. Scott Walker in 2018. 

Evers took a pass on the “divide-and-conquer” approach to politics pioneered by Walker in Wisconsin — and weaponized, nationwide, by Trump.

Instead of pushing political hot buttons to divide neighbor against neighbor, Evers promised to “fix the damn roads” and reinvest in education. Since taking office, he has called special session after special session to deal with issues voters care about — gun violence, the farm crisis and funding public schools.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, safely gerrymandered into power, has refused to engage — gaveling in and then gaveling out of the special session on guns without debate, and ignoring the governor’s other proposals. Recently, however, Republican leaders promised they would bring up their own package of bills to outspend Evers’ efforts to address the farm crisis — showing that they are not entirely immune to matters of urgent interest to the public.

As the presidential election nears, and Trump and Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly visit our state, there’s a lot of talk about who will win over suburban voters and how Wisconsinites are responding to the impeachment drama in Washington.

The New York Times reported on Feb. 8 that suburban voters in Waukesha feel more supportive of Trump after impeachment. Waukesha, which the Times describes, misleadingly, in the Sunday print edition of the story as a “tossup district,” is the most Republican county in Wisconsin, and home to the rightwing talk radio hosts who fueled Walker’s rise, along with an aggressive, racially divisive brand of Republican politics. 

It’s not surprising that Republican voters there are circling the wagons after impeachment. Statewide opinion polls have shown little movement in Wisconsin on the issue. 

What’s more important is what’s happening in people’s lives.

Outside the hardcore pro-Trump base, Wisconsinites might be willing to continue to ignore the president’s bad behavior and racist tweets if it seems like things are getting better on the farm. Trump can point to the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada as a win for farmers, but the deal is fundamentally a continuation of NAFTA, which many farmers here saw as a betrayal. Tariffs, trade wars, and tone-deaf remarks by Trump’s ag secretary Sonny Perdue, who told family farmers that they might not survive if they can’t get big enough compete with giant operations, have not added up to a net plus for the president.  

Trump is also courting suburbanites here, who are enjoying the booming stock market. And like rural voters, many have gotten good at ignoring the aspects of Trump’s personality and behavior that they don’t like.

Meanwhile, as their 2020 convention in Milwaukee approaches, Democrats are fretting about whether their eventual candidate should court rural, white voters or the younger, browner electorate that represents the country’s future.

The truth is that our political leaders have to find a way to speak to both groups at once. That’s what Evers continues to do — plugging away, emphasizing the values that bring Wisconsinites together rather than tearing us apart.

It’s more than Midwestern nice. It could be a model for reviving our democracy, beginning in a state that is still divided, but not conquered.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.