Eau Claire City Hall. (Wisconsin Historical Society)
In 2019, Kyle Woodman ran for an at-large seat on the Eau Claire City Council. In his campaign, he commented on the local issues that were likely to be decided by the 11-member body. He told VolumeOne, a Chippewa Valley culture magazine, his priority was building infrastructure that would facilitate economic growth.
He finished in 10th in a 10-person race.
This year, he’s running for City Council again, against incumbent Emily Anderson, but now he’s got a much different strategy. Woodman is largely ignoring local issues — unless agitating against a countywide mask mandate counts.
In the years since his last run, Woodman, a member of the Eau Claire County Republican Party Executive Committee, has built a decently sized social media following by arguing for conservative government and fighting the culture war.
He’s brought that strategy to his latest campaign; his stated plans if he wins are to protect individual freedoms, open the economy, oppose high taxes and defend law enforcement. The resulting rhetoric is mostly full-throated defenses of 2nd Amendment rights and the spread of Stop the Steal conspiracy theories.
In January, he appeared at a campaign event with Wisconsin Court of Appeals candidate Greg Gill and former Republican congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden — an attendee of the Jan. 6 rally in Washington D.C. that resulted in the violent Capitol insurrection.
Nowhere in his campaign platform is there a focus on local issues most relevant to Eau Claire voters. Even his desire to open the economy neglects to include any details, for example, on how the city’s arts scene and related tourism can recover from the pandemic-caused crash. As the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel nears, his adoption of the state and national Republican parties’ stance against restrictions will likely become irrelevant for much of his potential term. Despite his strong stance for reopening, he’s expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Woodman is part of a mostly conservative group of candidates for local office across the state who are forgoing the hyper-local issues that city council and school boards largely deal with — instead aligning themselves with controversial culture war topics and making appearances with some of the state’s most divisive conservative personalities.
This trend, the nationalization of state and local politics, has been occurring across the country as state parties have become more homogenous and local news has been overshadowed by national cable news and social media.
“This can really be a problem but in part it makes sense as a strategy for candidates; they don’t want to be seen to entirely ignore local issues, especially for council or school board, but they can use their national issues that have resonance across the country,” says Dr. Dan Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book, “The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized.”
“It’s much, much easier for a candidate who is probably not well known, to take a stand and ride that issue than to try to get people worried about a local issue they hadn’t previously thought about,” he continues.
The nationalization of state and local politics is more than bringing a liberal or conservative sensibility to the city council — that’s how the system is designed. Instead, candidates highlight national wedge issues as a way to rile up their political base in the way that the local zoning code or street cleaning can’t.
The outstanding question is if a strategy such as Woodman’s can work. Spring elections in off-cycle years are often low turnout affairs and the people who care about local politics are often passionate about local politics. Will they vote for someone if they don’t hear the issues they care about being addressed?
Lewis Friedland, a professor in the UW-Madison School of Journalism who is doing a large-scale study of Wisconsin’s media ecosystem, says that this focus on national culture-based issues could work in our current political climate. For one, the low turnout in spring elections is often dominated by an electorate that skews older and whiter than Wisconsin as a whole. It’s possible, according to Friedland, that people will set aside their issue identifications and vote for a candidate solely on party.
“It might work because even though the people who vote in spring elections tend to care about schools, they also tend to skew older and whiter, those spring elections are Republican-leaning elections,” he says. “So here’s the thing, there’s been a trend in politics in the United States for some time now that’s called nationalization, party identification beats out issue voting.”
“If I’m a Republican, which more often means a Trump Republican, then I’m for the 2nd Amendment and I’m against mask mandates,” Friedland continues. “That’s a national Republican position, that’s a Trump position. The mask thing is just a form of culture war but those are Republican-identified positions nonetheless. Is an already somewhat Republican-skewing electorate, can they be mobilized as if it’s a national election?”
In his research, Friedland has found that nationalization of state and local politics has increased as the state’s media have become more corporatized, more squeezed and in some cases shut down. While surveys show most Wisconsinites still get a majority of their news from local TV, even the best-run stations can’t dedicate the same amount of time and resources to dedicated coverage of local races as a strong local newspaper, according to Friedland.
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“The other thing that matters a lot is the continuing decline of the local news ecology,” Friedland says. “The institutions that have covered local and state races are getting weaker and weaker. There’s barely coverage of state races, much less local state races, much less robust local coverage. There aren’t enough reporters to cover them in Oshkosh, Appleton, Wausau, the Fox Valley.”
When local news fades, social media fills the hole, he says. The result is candidates like Woodman who see an opportunity to ride defense of the 2nd Amendment into a seat on the Eau Claire City Council.
Woodman isn’t the only candidate across the state using this strategy.
Another candidate for Eau Claire council, Joshua Stanley, has essentially partnered with Woodman as they attempt to unseat more progressive incumbents in the 2nd and 3rd District seats.
Stanley’s opponent, Jeremy Gragert, says he’s focusing on talking about improving infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians, the city’s library renovation and affordable housing. But he has noticed a lack of policy talk from the Stanley campaign, even though he has no problem with local political parties getting involved in local races.
“Obviously it takes more effort to learn about and be involved in local government issues, there’s not as much reporting on them, it’s lower profile, it’s not as sexy talking about the wastewater treatment plant,” Gragert says. “I don’t really have a problem with local parties being involved in politics because that’s what they do. People are passionate about politics and voting and they should be. But I haven’t heard any local policy discussions coming from my opponent’s campaign.”
In another corner of the state, candidates for school board of the Burlington Area School District are taking a similar tack. Marlo Brown and Taylor Wishau, candidates in the three-way race for a seat on the board, have laid out extensive policy proposals — but their plans have largely been overshadowed by their appearance at a joint fundraiser with right wing radio host Vicki McKenna.
The popularity of right wing talk radio in Wisconsin has also played a role in the nationalization of the state’s politics, according to Friedland.
“You’ve got this sort of hidden, not really hidden, layer of radio in Wisconsin that serves the same function that Fox News and other right wing outlets serve nationally,” he says. “That’s another way in which the local Trumpists’ base strategy might work because you’ve got these folks pounding away on talk radio.”
In the past year, Burlington schools have been at the center of several controversies as officials have attempted to respond to claims of racism within the district and a teacher was placed on leave after attending the Jan. 6 rally in D.C.
Wishau, who is running to be re-elected, says his personal views don’t matter.
“Who cares what my personal politics are? As I’ve stated, … I leave the ‘personal politics’ at the door when I step into that board room,” he says in an email. “I serve ALL students and citizens of my community and I know my colleagues do the same. The students always come first in my mind no matter the issue.”
In his email response, Wishau copied radio hosts McKenna and Mark Belling; criticized previous reporting by the Wisconsin Examiner about Burlington schools; said that students of color do better in Burlington than students at some of the state’s largest districts, including Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha and Racine schools; and said that state and local Democratic parties also support local candidates in nominally nonpartisan races.
A call to Woodman’s campaign phone number just resulted in several minutes of hold music, and an email to his campaign account went unanswered. His opponent, Emily Anderson, declined to comment. An email to Stanley’s campaign was not answered.
Brown did not respond to an email requesting a comment; neither did Diane Wood, the third candidate in the Burlington School Board race.
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