2018 was a good year for the Wisconsin Democratic Party on the surface.
After suffering a devastating and shocking defeat in the 2016 Presidential Election and U.S. Senate race in the state, Democrats feared the worst for Senator Tammy Baldwin and others heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Many feared after Election Night 2016 that Wisconsin may be trending in an irrevocably red direction.
Fortunately for Democrats, 2018 provided a much better outcome. Tammy Baldwin handily won her re-election campaign for U.S. Senate against former Republican State Senator Leah Vukmir. Democrats also completed a clean sweep of every statewide race for the first time this decade, from Tony Evers narrowly defeating Scott Walker in the governor’s race, to Josh Kaul and Sarah Godlewski winning their statewide races too.
When it came to control of the Wisconsin State Legislature, though, the results were much more grim.
Despite winning every statewide race on the ballot last November, Democrats managed to lose a seat in the State Senate, and picked up just one State Assembly seat in an otherwise favorable year for the party. Both of those things meant that the GOP would have large majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature (19-14 in the Senate, 63-36 in the Assembly) once Tony Evers was sworn in as governor in 2019. That would be a significant impediment to him accomplishing any of the major policy goals that he, and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, campaigned on.
So far, those concerns have held true as the GOP essentially ignored the Governor during the budget process that happened this Spring.
Why did We Lose?
The primary, overriding reason why Republicans kept control of both chambers of the State Legislature was thanks to the ridiculous gerrymander they passed after the 2010 census. It’s estimated that Democrats would have had to have won 14 Assembly Districts that former Governor, Scott Walker, won in 2018 in order to win control of the chamber. Nine of those 14 districts saw Walker win by 5% or more, despite him losing statewide.
We’ll discuss the issue of gerrymandering in much more detail in subsequent articles, especially since it will be a key issue in 2020.
Gerrymandering, though, was not the only reason why Democrats performed so poorly. Democrats managed to lose a handful of Assembly districts that Hillary Clinton had won in 2016. They also lost several more districts that Senator Baldwin was able to carry in her landslide win (she won 55 of the 99 assembly districts, well past the 45 seats they need for a bare majority).
What went wrong in these races? Why did Democrats lose seats that appeared to be quite winnable, especially when they ran a lot very talented candidates in those races?
In this article, I’ll highlight some of the issues that may have played a role in why we fell short in these races in 2018. The problems we’ll discuss in this article are things that have been shared with me through several conversations I’ve had with party insiders, activists, voters, progressive groups, candidates who ran for office last year, and in my own personal observations from working as a volunteer. I’ve kept these people anonymous so their concerns could be voiced as freely and as honestly with me as possible.
I’ll also present what I think we can do to address these problems that undermined us in 2018 so they don’t happen again in 2020. The stakes are too high. We can, and must do much, much better.
What Went Wrong?
Several common things have come up in my conversations about these competitive 2018 State Assembly races we lost. Many are issues that I’ve observed in the field when working on past campaigns in this state.
A) Too Focused on the Top of the Ticket
The problem I’ve heard most often in the conversations I’ve had with people is that, for as much as the State Party has improved since 2016, they didn’t do enough to help the down-ballot races we had in 2018.
So much of the focus from the State Party was on the two major races at the top of the ticket: U.S. Senate and Governor. It’s not difficult to see why that was either, given what happened in 2014 and 2016 in this state. However, this almost exclusive focus on the top of the ballot hurt the candidates further down the ballot because we weren’t talking about them or giving people a reason to vote for them.
Most of our door knocking and organizing efforts we put in during 2018, through the Coordinated Campaign, were centered around these two races. When we were at doors, we weren’t really talking about State Senate or State Assembly candidates. We were focused on getting people to vote for Tammy and Tony, then using them to convince voters to also vote for our other candidates if we even mentioned them at all. This did a great disservice to our state legislative candidates since we weren’t giving voters a reason to vote for them separate from being the same party as Governor Evers or Senator Baldwin.
This isn’t the first time we’ve made this mistake either. Our efforts have always put a laser focus on the top of the ticket in the hope that they can create co-tails that carry the rest of our races home. Voters, however, need a reason to vote for our candidates down-ballot too. Otherwise, they may not see the importance of voting in that race, or they may end up voting for the incumbent because they recognize their name, met them once and thought they were nice, or simply fail to see why the status quo isn’t working for them.
I’ve had countless voters I’ve talked to at doors in the past several months ask why were weren’t more active in their communities. They wondered where we were, or if we even cared about their concerns at all. This has a real detrimental effect, even among those people who are inclined to support us and vote.
For as much as politics is changing in federal races, there’s a lot voters who aren’t as aware of what’s going on at the state level too. Unless we do a better job of getting voters engaged on that, we’ll never be able to win an enduring majority in this state. (this applies to the State Supreme Court too).
State legislative races haven’t gotten nearly as much attention in our organizing as they deserve.
Solution: We need to coordinate our organizing efforts to be more candidate specific. When we organize weekends of action, we should be dividing our time to focus on a specific race that weekend so we can actually talk to voters about the candidate running for our state legislative offices. Whoever the Presidential nominee is will likely have an amazing organization that is well-funded and organized anyway. The State Party must be focused on pushing state-specific races up-and-down the ballot next year if we’re going to flip either chamber of the legislature.
B) Too Little Financial Support from Above
Another common problem I heard was that our candidates weren’t receiving much fundraising help from the State Party, especially when compared to the amount they would have needed to spend to push back on the massive expenditures that the Wisconsin GOP, and other right-wing groups, were putting into these races.
In one specific case, a candidate shared with me that they didn’t receive almost any financial assistance from the State Party until one of their donors talked to someone in the State Party on their behalf. Only then, when this donor had contacted the State Party (and had clout since they had donated thousands of dollars to the State Party over the course of the cycle), did the State Party give money to the candidate’s race. Even then, the amount they received was well short of what they needed to compete in a really close race.
The County parties, which are making massive strides compared to where we were even just two years ago, did more in many cases to support these candidates financially than the State Party did. That may not be a sustainable model, especially since the State Party has many more tools at their disposal to receive donations than our County Parties do. They’re in a much better position to provide the money that our down-ballot candidates need to compete and win.
Solution: Fundraising must be a top priority for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, and they must make sure that the money they have is going towards our candidates in down-ballot races as much as is practically possible. We may never be able to match the unlimited contributions that people like the Koch Brothers make to Republican groups, but we can at least make it closer. Candidates need the money to build a winning organization. So do our local and county parties.
C) Too Little Party Assistance on the Ground Too Late
A third common concern I heard in my conversations was that the State Party jumped into these state races too late in the process.
The Coordinated Campaign, in more than a few close races, didn’t focus on these races until a few weeks out from Election Day. This meant several candidates in competitive races were forced to do most of the work of voter contact and persuasion on their own. This can be especially difficult for them as they may not have the campaign experience, or the infrastructure, to sustain a grassroots movement that can change the game in competitive districts. Most state legislative candidates, especially at the Assembly level, aren’t going to be able to afford to hire the staff that’s required to run a top-notch ground game.
This is a common problem that’s hurt the Democratic Party in this state in more than just 2018. In 2016, we didn’t have offices in the field in many essential locations until late August or Early September. I was going to Law School at UW-Madison that year. We didn’t have a field office in Madison, the core area of votes for us, until the first week in September. This meant we were trying to build up an organization at the very last minute. We were able to overcome those limitations in Dane County, but a lot of other areas around the state weren’t. It’s a big part of the reason why we lost in 2016.
Solution: New Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair, Ben Wikler, has put a significant emphasis on going back to what’s worked for Democrats across the country in past elections. Specifically, he’s looking to emulate not only President Obama’s campaign model of building grassroots teams in local communities, but building an organization that’s in our communities beyond Election Day. The only way we can really change things is by remaining active in our communities year-round. This means that the State Party must be organizing in our communities NOW. Without this, our candidates and organizations are having to, essentially, reinvent the wheel every new election cycle. That’s not a model conducive to winning elections. The State Party must be doing everything they can to support State Legislative candidates as early as possible so we can be talking to as many voters as possible. We have the energy and engagement to do this. It’s also something that the State Party has begun to do over the past several weeks.
D) Out-of-Date Data
A fourth concern is that the voter data we’re using isn’t as up-to-date as we need it to be if we’re going to win elections.
Much of the voter data we have through the Voter Action Network (VAN) hasn’t been updated on a massive scale since at least the 2012 election cycle. There are tens of thousands of voters out there who cast a ballot in 2018, but who we don’t know the party preference of. This means there are tons of potentially persuadable voters out there that we aren’t contacting AT ALL. That’s a big deal in a state where hundreds of thousands of voters have voted for at least one Republican AND Democrat for a Statewide office since 2016.
There’s also thousands of potential voters out there who we could win the votes of if we were actually able to reach them and persuade them to come out and vote. These are people who tend to skew more progressive in their politics than the current universe of registered voters, and, thus, are more likely to vote for Democrats.
Solution: The State Party, and organizations like Swing Left, have been doing canvasses in recent weeks of voters in areas where we know there are more potential Democratic voters than we have in our data. Not only are we identifying what issues are important to them in our conversations, but it’s getting those people identified so that we know, and our candidates know, who to target for turnout and/or persuasion next year. We need to be much more aggressive in getting the most accurate data we can. Without it, we’re going to continue to lose on the margins in tight, but winnable races. This data must be used for turnout AND persuasion. We won’t flip Republican-leaning districts without it.
E) Disunity Internally
A fifth problem that was identified in my conversations was discord between candidates, the party, and outside groups.
We’ve highlighted the disconnect between the State Party and many candidate running for office. Several people I’ve talked to felt that the State Party made promises to them or others that they failed to carry out on. This caused real resentment between the candidates and the party, and thus contributed to some of the deficiencies we had in our campaign efforts.
There was also real tension in some cases between candidates and/or local organizations. I heard of a specific instance where a primary opponent refused to endorse their opponent after losing. Many associated with that particular candidate chose not to volunteer for the candidate who won, refused to donate to them, and, in some cases, either refused to vote for that race on the ballot once the general election rolled around, or even voted for that person’s opponent.
Solution: People need to put aside their differences and keep the bigger picture in mind in these races. We need all hands on deck. We must all be on the same page. We must organize our resources in the most efficient way possible. This means better communication that is more direct and honest between everyone. If we don’t discuss these problems now, and work to resolve them, we will continue to lose winnable races. We can win, but only if we are unified.
F) Lack of Digital Advertising
Another area where we struggled was on the advertising front, especially in digital advertising.
How elections are won is changing very rapidly. Many people now rely on the internet to get their information instead of traditional means of media like newspapers and television.
Democrats across the state spent significant sums of money on mailers instead of investing in digital advertising campaigns. This method of voter contact and persuasion hasn’t worked for years and needs to be scaled back.
Solution: Sustained digital advertising, especially on mediums like Facebook, are critical to changing the game. This is something that Dan Pfeiffer, former White House Communications Director for President Obama, has highlighted in his book Yes We (Still Can) and elsewhere. The Wisconsin Republican Party, and campaign’s like Donald Trump’s, have been spending millions of dollars on digital advertising, and have been doing so months before elections. It works. If we don’t start supporting our candidates with these types of advertising in a sustained way, we will continue to lose voters, and fail to recruit as many volunteers as we could if we were doing this kind of outreach.
G) Failure of Messaging/Persuasion
Perhaps the biggest contributor of all to our loses was a failure of messaging.
Related to the digital advertising point I just highlighted, Democrats have utterly failed in this state, for almost a decade, to inform the public of the all of the horrible things the Wisconsin GOP has done while in control of the government. Because voters aren’t aware of these things, they fail to see why the GOP is really as bad as we say they are, and are much more inclined to vote for them as a result.
The State Party has also failed to break through with any kind of coherent message to voters on what we stand for. This makes it difficult to earn people’s votes. If we aren’t explaining to voters how we are the better party to address their concerns, how are we ever going to win their trust and support?
We’ve also put too much focus on targeting only Democratic doors at the expense of targeting persuadable voters who may lean GOP, but are reachable. We will never flip GOP leaning districts if aren’t making a sustained effort to reach people who have usually voted GOP, but can split their ticket if we run good candidates and have a great message. That’s the nature of the game on a mapped that’s designed to create a near permanent Republican majority in a deeply divided state.
Democrats have tried to rely on a traditional media structure to do their job for them when it comes to messaging. This is something that traditional media isn’t suited to do, nor is it something they should do either. We must do things differently.
Solution: Democrats must be using every means at their disposal to inform voters of what the GOP has done, and keeping that information in the minds of voters throughout an entire election cycle. This means using non-traditional means of media to reach voters, like digital advertising, podcasts, and creative social media campaigns, as well as doing direct contact with voters at doors. We must also find a way to get a message out there that all of our state candidates can unite around. This can be done by highlighting some core values that we stand for that have mass public support, and align with our values, like opportunity for everyone, standing up for the principle of one person one vote, protecting our democracy, and taking on the corrupt special interests which have bought off the GOP in Madison and Washington D.C.. If we don’t make it clear what we stand for, and why our path is better, people will continue to be more inclined vote for Republican incumbents.
All of these issues are things we can, and must address if we’re going to do better in 2020. In fact, many of the things I’ve highlighted in this article are things our State Party IS already doing, or plans to do moving forward. It’s refreshing to have leadership that’s willing to acknowledge what we got wrong in the past, and is creative in figuring out how we can improve moving forward.
Yes, winning control of the State Assembly is an extremely difficult task, but it’s not an impossible one. The State Senate can be flipped too, much more so than the State Assembly.
We must revamp our organization and unite our cause. Every day that goes by where we aren’t being as proactive as we can is yet another day where billionaires, like Diane Hendricks and the Koch Brothers, are giving huge sums of money to the Wisconsin State GOP, and groups affiliated with their cause.
The way we defeat these corrupt special interests is by building a grassroots organization from the ground up, using the existing groups we have to assist us in this cause, and contacting as many voters in as many creative ways as we can with a message that brings people together around a set of common values.
If we fix these shortcomings we’ve had, we can finally change the game and get a government elected that’s actually suited to take on the massive challenges that we face.
Donate to the Wisconsin Democratic party today and/or sign-up to volunteer. The work we need to do to win in 2020 and beyond starts now. Sign up or donate to Swing Left and Run For Something as well. Even consider running for office yourself! We can do this!
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