What Happened to Wisconsin?

What Happened to Wisconsin?

The fight over the once-progressive state.


On election night last fall, I found myself staying up past midnight, even though it was clear by then that the Democrats had taken back the House of Representatives. I wanted to find out who had won the closely contested governor’s race in Wisconsin between two-term incumbent Scott Walker and his Democratic challenger, Tony Evers. Walker had not been just any Republican governor: During his time in office, the state—and much of the region—had adopted the agenda of the Republican far right. Although you could find right-to-work and voter-ID laws in the South when Walker was elected in 2011, such policies had yet to spread to the industrial Midwest. Under Walker and his Republican legislature, they took firm root in Wisconsin, and other Midwestern states—including Michigan and Indiana—followed Walker’s lead. Even in Illinois, the Republican governor attempted to pressure the Democratic-controlled legislature to enact anti-union measures.

In The Fall of Wisconsin, Dan Kaufman, a journalist and Wisconsin native, offers an account of how his state went “from a pioneering beacon of progressive, democratic politics to the embodiment of that legacy’s national unraveling.” Kaufman blames this transformation—which culminated in Donald Trump winning the state in 2016—on “powerful conservative donors and organizations across the country [that] had Wisconsin in their sights…. helping Governor Scott Walker and his allies systematically change the state’s political culture.”

Kaufman’s book is a valuable contribution toward understanding Wisconsin’s politics today. He shows how Walker’s rise was due in part to Milwaukee’s far-right and anti-labor Bradley Foundation, and he also profiles the leading Democratic opponents in the state. But Kaufman doesn’t explore in any depth why voters supported Walker and the Republicans—something that Katherine J. Cramer did in her book The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Kaufman interviews Cramer, but he suggests that the “origins of the rural resentment” she observed might be found in the deliberate agitation by conservative leaders as well as the “dark money” pouring into the state from powerful right-wing donors like the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In doing so, Kaufman misses the deeper roots of Wisconsin’s conservative turn. Long before Walker’s arrival, the state had ceased to be unabashedly progressive. Walker did not push Wisconsin from left to right, but from center-right to further right—and while the network of conservative donors played a role, they were simply appealing to sentiments that already existed among many of the state’s voters.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wisconsin was indeed a beacon of progressivism and grassroots democracy. In 1854, anti-slavery Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats founded the Republican Party at a meeting in the small town of Ripon, Wisconsin. After the Civil War, Wisconsin farmers, organized in the Grange, battled price-gouging by the railroads. In the early 20th century, the University of Wisconsin fostered the use of social science to develop government reforms that would alleviate the ills of industrial capitalism. The university’s role in aiding the state government was called the “Wisconsin Idea,” and its economics department, led by Richard Ely and John Commons, helped create a brain trust for state legislators.

Beginning with the election of progressive Republican Robert La Follette as governor in 1900, Wisconsin also became a center of state-based progressive-policy experiments, enacting a spate of reforms that included the nation’s first workers’ compensation act, bills limiting work hours for children and women, industrial health and safety legislation, and a state income tax. The city of Milwaukee, in particular, became a hotbed of “sewer socialism,” with the Socialist Party successfully sending a candidate to Congress in 1918 and Socialists ruling the municipality for almost half a century.

But Wisconsin’s leading role in American progressivism began to falter in the late 1930s. In 1938, Philip La Follette, Robert’s son, was ousted as governor; in 1944, the state voted for the Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, over Franklin Roosevelt; and in 1946, Robert Jr., La Follette’s other son, lost his seat in the US Senate to anti-labor upstart (and later notorious red-baiter) Joseph McCarthy. After World War II, most of the state’s Republican progressives became Democrats instead. From that point to the present, Democratic presidential candidates won Wisconsin’s electoral votes 10 times. But Republicans won them eight times, held the state’s governorship for 47 of the next 73 years, and—in line with the national party—moved ever farther to the right.

Having once dominated the state, progressives were now concentrated in the industrial and heavily unionized southeastern cities, including Milwaukee, Racine, and Madison, and in the northern farm communities that had been largely settled by Scandinavians; the Republicans held much of the rest of the state, including the white-collar suburbs around Milwaukee and the farming towns of southern and central Wisconsin, which had been largely settled by Germans. Democrats had the support of the growing black population in Wisconsin’s industrial cities, but the rise of the civil-rights movement sparked a powerful backlash among some white voters, who abandoned the party. In the 1964 Democratic presidential primary, the segregationist candidate George Wallace won 25 percent of the vote statewide and 31 percent in Milwaukee.

Changing economic conditions also pushed the state and its voters to the right. During the 1981–82 recession, much of Wisconsin’s industry began closing down, diminishing organized labor’s power in the state. Blue-collar whites, who had already begun to move rightward in response to the civil-rights movement, continued to migrate to the suburbs and small towns, making these areas even more Republican. Democrats became heavily dependent on liberal Madison and the surrounding Dane County, which continued to grow, and on Milwaukee. By the 1980s and ’90s, La Follette’s Wisconsin was looking more like conservative Ohio or Missouri (with their sharp demarcations between the segregated inner cities and suburbs) than Illinois or Minnesota. Democrats, drawing votes from Madison and Milwaukee, found themselves increasingly isolated as the rest of the state—the suburbs, small towns, and rural areas—became predominantly Republican.

Scott Walker was able to exploit these divisions. The son of a Baptist preacher from Colorado, he attended (but did not graduate from) Marquette University in Milwaukee. He was elected to the state assembly from a Milwaukee suburb in 1992. Unlike Tommy Thompson, the state’s longtime Republican governor, or former senator Bob Kasten, Walker was not a typical pro-business Republican. Instead, he emerged from the Republican new right that had been forged in the ’90s by firebrand congressman (and future House speaker) Newt Gingrich and political strategist Grover Norquist. He was also more attuned to the party’s religious right and less amenable to compromising with the Democrats.

This younger, more intransigent right embraced Norquist’s program of defunding its opponents, a hallmark of which was the attempt to cripple the political power of public-employee unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association. As Kaufman recounts, Walker was an early recruit to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafted legislation meant to weaken unions and discourage Democratic voters.

Walker’s political rise was also partly due to good luck. In 2002, he ran for Milwaukee County executive on the heels of a pension scandal that doomed the Democratic incumbent. In 2010, he ran for governor in the wake of another scandal that discredited the Democratic incumbent, Jim Doyle, and after an enormous loss of jobs in the state caused by the Great Recession, which voters blamed on Doyle and on President Obama. But according to Kaufman, Walker also benefited from the financial support of Charles and David Koch, who contributed more than $40,000 to his race, and from the support of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity.

Once in office, and with a Republican majority in the state assembly and senate, Walker set out uncompromisingly to enact the agenda that the new right had devised over the prior two decades. In early 2011, over massive protests from public employees and their supporters, Walker got the state legislature to pass Act 10, which drastically limited collective bargaining for public employees, made union dues voluntary, and forced the unions to seek recertification every year. Walker won support for Act 10, in part, by dividing Wisconsin’s working class, drawing on the perception that public workers had gotten off easy during the recession thanks to their generous contracts, even as other workers had suffered. The measure led to a sharp decline in public-union membership in the state: AFSCME lost two-thirds of its rank and file, and the Wisconsin teachers’ union went from 98,000 to 36,000 members.

That same year, Walker and the legislature also adopted a law that required voters to show a photo ID at the polls and to verify their current address. (A University of Wisconsin study found that, in 2016, nearly 17,000 residents of Dane and Milwaukee counties were discouraged by the law from voting.)

Democrats fought back, but their efforts were mostly ineffective. In 2012, the party and the unions launched a recall vote to force Walker from office. Kaufman blames a Koch-funded group and its $400,000 contribution for the recall effort’s defeat. The group ran ads arguing that removing Walker over a piece of legislation wasn’t “the Wisconsin way.” Exit polls suggested that the ads struck a chord with voters: When asked, “Do you think recall elections are appropriate only for official misconduct?,” 60 percent of the voters agreed and only 37 percent disagreed.

After Walker won a second term in 2014—when he received a third of the union vote—his assault on organized labor continued, including a right-to-work law barring union contracts that required workers to belong to the union. While dark money was a factor in Walker’s re-election, his win was also part of the Republican wave that swept over many states in 2014 and had begun building after the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act—better known as “Obamacare”— a year before. That wave carried other Wisconsin Republicans to victory as well.

Kaufman, whose book appeared before the midterm elections last year, took Trump’s 2016 victory in Wisconsin as the culmination of the state’s fall from progressivism—but in retrospect, Trump’s victory may have paved the way for Walker’s defeat in 2018. Trump won the state by breaking somewhat with the pattern of Walker and previous Republican presidential candidates: He carried the northern and central counties that had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, but he did worse than Walker or Obama’s 2012 challenger, Mitt Romney, in the wealthy suburbs outside Milwaukee. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton—who didn’t even visit Wisconsin during the general-election campaign—lost because she failed to turn out the Democratic vote in Dane County and Milwaukee and failed to take advantage of Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs. In many ways, Clinton lost the state more than Trump won it.

In the 2018 races, the Democrats, with Trump’s assistance, nationalized many of the Senate, House, and gubernatorial seats, and this time, they were able to turn out their base in Wisconsin as well, taking advantage of the growing disillusion with Trump among college-educated suburban voters—particularly women. Thus, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, Democratic challenger Tony Evers did better than Walker’s prior opponents in the wealthy suburbs and also got out the vote in Dane County and Milwaukee, while Walker did better than before in the small, erstwhile Democratic counties that Trump had won in 2016. The 2018 gubernatorial election proved to be a rerun of the 2016 presidential contest—only this time the Democrat ran a much better race.

The contrasts between the 2014 and 2018 results are even more telling. In 2014, Walker defeated Democrat Mary Burke, 53 to 46 percent, among white college-educated voters; in 2018, he lost among the same voters by 52 to 47 percent. (Among white college-educated women in particular, Evers won by 60 to 39 percent.) In 2014, Walker narrowly lost the 18-to-29-year-old vote, 51 to 47 percent; four years later, he lost by a much wider margin, 60 to 37 percent. Walker got most of the Trump vote, but in an election where a significant part of the electorate had been alienated by Trump, an identification with the president insured Walker’s defeat.

Where does all this leave Wisconsin now? The results of the 2018 midterms do not necessarily mean that the state is shifting back to its older, more progressive roots. While the voters’ dissatisfaction with Trump benefited Evers, as well as Senator Tammy Baldwin (who won re-election easily, in part by dramatically increasing her support in Milwaukee’s upscale Republican suburbs) and state attorney-general candidate Josh Kaul, that dissatisfaction did not carry over to the congressional or state legislative races. Republicans continue to hold a five-to-three edge in Wisconsin’s US House seats as well as a majority in both the state assembly and senate. (They even gained a seat in the latter.) And so the battle continues. The election of Evers and Kaul will certainly benefit the Democrats, but even before they took office, the Republican-controlled legislature passed, and Walker signed, bills that will limit the ability of Evers to appoint regulatory officials and of Kaul to challenge Republican legislation; the bills also codified the Republican restrictions on early voting, which have since been struck down by a federal judge. Democrats, as a result, are taking these battles to court. There is already one lawsuit against Republican redistricting, which allowed the GOP to carry the state’s assembly races even though Democrats received 54 percent of the popular vote; and there are already four lawsuits against the bills that Walker signed in December. Wisconsin has, perhaps, halted the rightward lurch that occurred under its former Republican governor. But over the next several years, the state will remain up for grabs. It’s very likely that a reasonably popular Democrat, running against Trump in 2020, could carry the state simply on the basis of suburban anti-Trump voters. But in 2022, control of the state could well shift back to center-right Republicans.

Wisconsin’s long-term fate will depend partly on how the parties position themselves: whether Democrats can follow Baldwin’s lead and speak to the small towns as well as the metropolitan areas, and whether Republicans can escape the shadow of Trump’s unpopularity. But it will also depend on how the state develops economically. If Madison’s Dane County continues to grow, and if Milwaukee revives economically and develops a more symbiotic relationship with its suburbs, then the Democrats are likely to benefit—and the state itself may recapture some of the past progressive glory that Kaufman describes in his well-written book.

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