Democracy is a journey, so the work will ramp up again shortly to plan for races in 2023 and 2024.
Reviewing the immediate aftermath of an election is like being a track inspector—not on a railroad but a roller coaster. Everyone expects there to be ups and downs, but why are some inclines too steep, some curves too sharp, and some straightaways too bumpy? Why do some cars finish the course successfully while others stall and an unlucky few crash?
Hey, we never said a political roller coaster would pass an OSHA inspection!
Looking back at the gnarled tracks of the 2022 campaign, what can we learn when building the next course for candidates and voters? Here are some takeaways, some things to watch, and a little free advice.
Takeaway No. 1: Wisconsin Democrats Are Stronger Than Many Expected
Gov. Tony Evers is the state’s first Democratic incumbent to win election during a Democratic president’s midterm since 1962. He not only bested his 1.1% win in 2018 over Scott Walker, he sent Tim Michels back to Connecticut with a 3.5% margin—a landslide by Wisconsin standards! Democrats continue to rack up wins in statewide races, with the exception of the state treasurer’s contest. And despite maps rigged to the point where an impartial court would consider them criminal, Democrats denied Republicans the legislative supermajority that would have allowed the GOP to override Evers’ vetoes and control every aspect of state government.
In what many expected would be a “red tide” year, the state’s erratic incumbent Republican senator came within a whisker of being unseated. Sen. Ron Johnson won the third term he promised not to seek, but he was only able to hold back a challenge from Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes thanks to tens of millions of dollars in ads that immediately earned a place in state political lore for their blatant racism and scare tactics. At no point did Johnson talk about actual achievements, and none are expected for the next six years. Democrats can hold their heads high and turn their attention toward a presumptive third-term effort from Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2024.
Takeaway No. 2: All Politics Is Local
Foxconn was former Gov. Scott Walker’s economic “Hail Mary” in 2018, an acknowledgement that he could not keep his promise to create jobs across Wisconsin. Evers used a different playbook—allocating American Rescue Plan funds in ways that went directly to Main Streets and target industries in all 72 counties, rather than to a single recipient. In perhaps the best-known example, Evers put in place grants that will eventually provide 10,000 small businesses with $10,000 each—a $100 million investment that sounds like a lot, but pales in comparison to the more than $3 billion Walker and Republican legislators were willing to hand over to Foxconn.
Similarly, Democratic candidates across the state focused on local messages while Republicans tried to appeal to national themes with negative messages about crime and social issues. Some Democrats, like state Sen. Jeff Smith, were able to squeak out a thin margin of victory. Others, like Assembly candidate Lu Ann Bird in suburban Milwaukee, came within just a few hundred votes of winning.
Takeaway No. 3: Voters Want Candidates Who Can Walk and Chew Gum
There were critics who said Democrats should not focus so sharply on abortion rights or protecting democracy because economic issues were frequently at the top of public opinion polls. Results around the country showed voters want to see public officials be supportive of good economic measures while also protecting their medical privacy and their right to vote freely. Single-issue campaigns send a message that a candidate is fixated on ideology rather than being a full-service public servant.
What to Watch, No. 1: A Win-Win for the Surplus?
Republicans used obstruction to avoid finding any kind of common ground with Gov. Evers. They squandered a chance to put a record $5 billion surplus to work in 2022. Evers outlined a specific plan with a mix of tax cuts and targeted investments.
The question for 2023 is whether GOP lawmakers will change their strategy and begin working with Evers to find a win-win arrangement for the surplus and the next state budget. Neither side should feel the need to hold out—there’s more than enough for everyone to do something they feel will help folks back home.
What to Watch, No. 2: Progressive Outreach to Rural Wisconsin
A recent New York Times Magazine cover story outlined how national Democrats made the fateful decision nearly half a century ago to focus on national races and neglect state legislatures and rural county parties. Things have improved only slightly over the years—and state progressives reacted with fury at seeing national decision makers do very little to help state Sen. Brad Pfaff’s effort to keep the 3rd Congressional District in Democratic hands after US Rep. Ron Kind’s retirement.
It’s clear that Republican hopes for 2022 were dashed by a big turnout from Democratic voters in cities, but that won’t be enough to begin tilting the legislative map or to recruit the next generation of progressive leaders around the state. While insurrection-adjacent Republican Derrick Van Orden will take a seat in Congress, his first reelection effort in 2024 will come during a presidential election year with Sen. Tammy Baldwin also likely to be on the ballot for a third term. National Democrats will face loud demands to do what is necessary to win back that seat in western and central Wisconsin.
What to Watch, No. 3: Decisions, Decisions
First and foremost: Will Baldwin quickly allay any concerns about her future plans? She has given no indication she wouldn’t seek another term, but leaving Democrats in suspense only allows speculation to occupy time that could be better spent on preparation.
Who will be Baldwin’s challenger? If an incumbent Republican like US Rep. Mike Gallagher steps up, that will begin a round of political dominoes. Who would run for the 8th Congressional District? If one or more candidates are legislators, who will run for their seats? Or will another wealthy business executive try to do what Tim Michels couldn’t do with nearly $20 million of his own money?
In the near term, progressives will likely have to decide between two or more candidates running for an open state Supreme Court seat in April—one that could reverse the court’s current 4-3 conservative majority. Progressives will need to avoid intense public division in the primary that could harm their chances in the general election. For reference, notice the absence of former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch on the campaign trail for Michels.
Enjoy the brief respite. Before long we’ll be reminded to keep your seatbelts fastened and keep your hands inside the car at all times before the tracks are repaired and the roller coaster begins another run.