Jeff Smith Truck Sign
In this photo from his campaign Facebook page, state Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) holds one of his many roadside listening session opportunities for constituents. Smith narrowly won reelection in a Republican-skewed district.

Never underestimate the power of simply telling people what you plan to do and basing it in the search for common ground.

The basic building block of a winning political campaign is not the political ad. It’s conversation—the one-on-one and small-group discussions that can change hearts and minds, affirm values, and enhance the search for the ever-elusive “common ground” of helpful ideas. The 2022 campaign showed us how conversations can work, how others could have worked if given a chance, and how conversations need to continue even after this year’s votes are all counted—whether they involve a governor with a statewide audience or a state legislator parking his pickup truck along the side of a road.

On a statewide level, Gov. Tony Evers told people in plain English what he wanted to do to help them, their kids, and the small businesses that power our local economies. His conversational tone was a welcome alternative to Tim Michels’ constant carping and his lack of actual ideas to help families, farmers, and entrepreneurs.

Since Republicans didn’t get the “red wave” that would give them a supermajority in the Legislature, we strongly encourage them to embrace the art of conversation, engage with the governor, and take on what might be the easiest job in any state capitol—coming up with a win-win plan to handle a record $5 billion budget surplus. No more obstruction for its own sake. It’s time to show the 50-50 electorate in Wisconsin how to play nice, share, and get back to work. 

In the race for US Senate, conversations about ideas were sorely lacking. Sen. Ron Johnson has no record of putting ideas to work for the good of the state and he offered no new ones—only race-baiting ads about crime designed to divert from his awful record. Democrat Mandela Barnes could have used that opening to talk about what he would do for people as a senator. While the lieutenant governor was right to start the campaign by telling his own story and outlining how Johnson has been terrible, he needed to give voters more substance—similar to what Evers did in proposing ideas for a second term. Voters always want to know: What will you do for me?

Barnes may have fallen short, but he remains one of the state’s promising young leaders—and he did something that will help our state for years to come. His candidacy inspired a new class of leaders, people in groups like Moms for Mandela, Northern Door Activism, and others. The very best thing he and they can do for Wisconsin is to stay involved. They have started countless conversations about how our state can put better ideas to work. 

The same can be said for the wealth of talented women and men who ran for legislative seats but fell short because of how Republicans have rigged the state’s district maps via gerrymandering. Collectively, these candidates knocked on tens of thousands of doors, initiating conversations that showed voters they have reason to be optimistic about the odds of future success. Unfortunately, they have to compete with toxic, right-wing rhetoric spewing from radio stations, social media, and websites. Now that an overdue progressive media structure is on the rise in Wisconsin—through operations like UpNorthNews and the Civic Media chain of radio stations—these candidates’ doorstep conversations and great ideas can get the larger platforms they deserve.

Of course, Wisconsinites can’t do it alone. That’s why it was unfortunate to see national Democrats again come up short in their support for rural districts. Brad Pfaff’s ideas deserved to be amplified across the 3rd Congressional District. And while Assembly candidate Leah Spicer was the subject of a cover story in the New York Times Magazine, the story itself pointed out how the national party is still not doing enough for incredible rural candidates like her. 

Set aside those national and state parties, independent groups, and media outlets for a moment, and you’re left with that single building block—the one-on-one conversation. It’s the reason why state Sen. Jeff Smith won a second term in a district heavily skewed against him. Smith is widely known for an ongoing series of pop-up mobile listening sessions. He got national attention for the way he pulls over his pickup truck in strategic places and puts up a large hand-painted sign inviting his constituents to “Stop & Talk” to their local legislator. Opinions are expressed, ideas are shared, and common ground is sought. Once seen as normal, this approach is now viewed as a quaint relic to the politics of yesteryear. 

Smith and his Republican challenger each got more than 38,000 votes—but Smith’s 678-vote margin may well reflect at least 678 roadside conversations about how government can work better for people back home. 

When the rest of us find it necessary to overcome disagreements and solve big problems, we don’t go out and buy TV ads to tear each other down. We understand that conversations build bridges over the things that divide us. We need to stop thinking it’s quaint when public officials choose conversation and compromise over conflict. Smith and Evers were rewarded for taking the more civil and creative approach. Let’s keep those conversations going.