Dems See Wisconsin as Proving Ground 04/19 06:19
PARDEEVILLE, Wis. (AP) -- Margo Miller thanked her hosts, covered herself in
a blue poncho and headed back into the driving sleet Saturday morning, with
more doors to knock in this rural subdivision but with another new volunteer's
name on her clipboard.
Miller and about 50 other Democratic activists who braved the spring storm
returned with 160 petition signatures for a special state Assembly campaign, a
local sleeper election that Democrats hope will be anything but.
Since Republican Donald Trump's surprise win in Wisconsin helped hand him
the White House, Democrats like Miller have been channeling their anger and
soul-searching into races close to home, racking up unexpected victories that
are sounding alarms for Republicans across the country.
The epicenter of the Republican resurgence of eight years ago, Wisconsin is
now the proving ground for the Democratic revival. The work of activists like
Miller could play a key role in the fight for control of the House and Senate
in midterm elections in November. But the goal is bigger. One door-knock at a
time, Democrats are seeking to rebuild their hold on the Upper Midwest and,
with it, their hopes of winning the White House in 2020.
"That's why I'm here," Miller told Jane Breuer, a 71-year-old retired legal
secretary, after knocking on her door in a rural subdivision outside tiny
Pardeeville amid the rolling dairy farm country north of Madison. "You're
starting to see that blue wave, and I think we're making progress."
Whether a wave is coming is unclear, but Democrats here have certainly put
Republicans on edge. In January, a Democrat snagged a state Senate seat by
winning over the same rural, working-class voters who voted for Trump. In
April, Democrats drove up turnout in a typically little-noticed Supreme Court
race. Last week, feeling the headwinds at home and across the country, U.S.
House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he would retire from Congress, leaving behind
a free-for-all for his southeastern Wisconsin seat and giving Democrats a shot
at a hugely symbolic win.
While Trump's election has ignited intensity for Democrats here, the drive
in Wisconsin is not simply a backlash against the president. Before Trump there
was Gov. Scott Walker, who tapped into frustrations across struggling small
towns and growing suburbs in 2010 to upend the political establishment. His
successful bid to dismantle the state's union-friendly laws ignited a
firestorm, an unsuccessful recall, and an identity crisis for Democrats who
fretted the state's pro-union, populist tradition was fading.
"I feel this deep sense of loss and grief. I don't recognize it as the
Wisconsin of my childhood," said Mary Arnold, a county party chairwoman in the
special election district. "We have a proud progressive reputation in
Wisconsin. Some of us just feel we have to stand and fight."
?That fight means turning out fellow Democrats and left-leaning
independents, especially in the rural corners of the state, who may have sat
out 2016 but are motivated by anger toward Walker and Trump. Organizers armed
with lists of likely Democratic voters in Breuer's subdivision Saturday needed
to do no prompting about Walker's two-term agenda or the upcoming special
"Walker's a Trump," Democrat Tom Weissenberger replied gruffly to Miller
when she asked him to rate the governor.
Keeping Walker from winning a third term won't be easy. He is a prolific
fundraiser and hardly oblivious to the shifting ground. In recent months, the
governor has moderated his tone and made overtures to Democratic-leaning voters
with efforts to bolster health care and education. He's told donors he's
worried about a possible Democratic surge.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin's bid for re-election is one major test of
whether the party can rebound. She'll face the winner of an August primary
between a Walker acolyte and a conservative outsider.
There are GOP activists who suggest a coming Democratic wave is overstated.
"This is a good way to rally the base," said Marian Krumburger, GOP
chairwoman in Brown County which includes Green Bay. "Is it destiny we're going
to lose in November and it's going to be a terrible November? Not necessarily."
Democrats have more to worry about than turnout. It's been a rough eight
years. Not only was Trump the first Republican presidential candidate to carry
the state since 1984, the party has struggled to field candidates who connect
with rural and working-class voters. There are 16 Democrats seeking to
challenge Walker in an August primary, which will leave the winner little time
to campaign before November.
Though Wisconsin Republicans lead Democrats in fundraising this year,
Democrats' cause is attracting financial backing unseen in Wisconsin in recent
years. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's group contributed more than
$500,000 to the Democrats' preferred Supreme Court candidate. California
billionaire Tom Steyer has named Wisconsin one of the 10 states where he plans
to spend some of the $30 million he's committed to promoting Democrats,
including $2.5 million to organize young voters, who can help drive up turnout
in liberal hubs of Madison and Milwaukee.
The next front in the fight is a June 12 special election for two vacant
statehouse districts --- one in working-class towns outside of Green Bay, the
other just a few miles outside Madison, where the capital's suburbs turn
quickly into tiny farm towns and vast rural stretches.
Trump handily beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in both districts, but
Democrats' Supreme Court pick narrowly won both a year and a half later.
While Republicans sort out which candidate among the four running will be on
the June ballot, Democrats have quickly united behind Ann Groves Lloyd, a
University of Wisconsin academic adviser and granddaughter of a former
Progressive Party state legislator.
"We have to get refocused on the values that make Wisconsin the state that
we all know and love," Lloyd told volunteers before Saturday's door-knocking.
Then, in her wool socks and rain boots, Lloyd released the group to the
"Weather be damned," she said. "Let's rock and roll."