Can a moderate win Wisconsin?
by Abe Ratner
The priority of the 2020 Democratic voter was always clear: to remove a dangerous executive by the remedy that remained.
The means to that end was equally clear to the vast majority of the political establishment and pundit class: we had to run a moderate. Ideally someone with a talent for straddling and equivocating on any issue of both importance and complexity; certainly someone minimally frightening to the moneyed class and those similarly motivated by fear of "moving too far left" and "socialism."
The conflicting electoral theories of the party's radical and moderate wings were continuously reiterated. In the moderate vision, a sufficient number of these waffling centrists return to the fold; in the radical one, a swell of energy and turnout from young people and new voters carry an exciting progressive candidate to victory. I suspect that many Democratic voters never understood the latter theory to exist in explicit opposition to the former: that as they internalized it, perhaps voter turnout could supersede the losses a radical candidate sustained among centrists.
Of course, the extent to which working-class moderates and independents are truly disinclined towards a social-democratic program remains to be determined in elections up and down the ballot for years to come. But there's no denying that the progressive movement failed to forcefully enough assert that there was little objective reason to remain slave to old ways of thinking: that in a country everyone knows is mortally polarized, enthusiasm is vital and turnout is everything, and that what persuadables remain may most value perceived integrity or some aesthetic understanding of strength and competence, or be immovably concerned with singular wedge issues. These realities were overwhelmed by the insistence of the establishment counter- narrative, which inundated Democratic voters from all directions. It said that a radical progressive or socialist couldn't win a general election, would lose horribly, would ensure another Trump term. Ultimately, to beat Trump, Democrats had to vote Biden. So a newly radicalized electorate nominated a relic of a bygone political era.
Sometime soon, progressives and socialists must be able to more effectively bring their case to the Democratic electorate, and that will mean a continuing reckoning with the entrenched power structure and propaganda apparatus of the Democratic party. The competition for power will certainly not be easy, but poking holes in the narrative that swung this last primary isn't too hard. Exceptions to the purported dominion of centrism can be readily observed— simple, digestible contemporary political history that has always suggested that theory was at least fallible, and certainly not a universal truism.
Wisconsin has received inordinate focus in the aftermath of 2016. Hillary Clinton never visited Wisconsin— Trump took it by less than a point, and it has haunted Democratic nightmare-scapes ever since. The Democratic National Convention was intended to convene in Milwaukee, and a ghostly assemblage did technically occur; for his part, Trump has visited the state twice in the last month. It's also the setting of an electoral politics that the moderate narrative of electability cannot account for.
The Badger State has a storied progressive history dating back a century. Prior to 2016 it had swung blue in every presidential election since 1988. But it has also long maintained a decidedly purple character: it regularly elects Republican governors, senators, and statehouses.
The centrist narrative suggests that such a state would reward political moderation, both in Democrats and Republicans, in statewide elections. Its governors and senators would make significant efforts at bipartisan appeal, stake themselves to middle-ground policy, and generally avoid inflaming the ire (or perhaps passion) of either political base.
So it's noteworthy that quite the opposite has been true: the last decade in Wisconsin politics has been dominated by figures who do little to gesture to this political mold.
The central figure in that decade is Governor Scott Walker, a hardline social and fiscal conservative who won two elections and a recall effort, each by at least five points, before losing to Democrat Tony Evers in 2018. It's possible that Walker's radicalism contributed to his demise in 2018's blue wave— it's evident that he was rewarded for it for eight years prior.
Walker shunned the compromises typical of moderate, purple-state Republican governance that many of his fellows embraced, including Medicaid expansion, which was quickly implemented in far more conservative states, from Iowa and Ohio to Arizona and North Dakota. He rose to national prominence early in his first term amid an effort to wrest bargaining rights from public unions (this most directly led to the recall effort); he campaigned on a radical opposition to abortion, including in cases of rape or incest. In the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that extended marriage rights to same-sex couples, he raised the prospect of amending the constitution to explicitly narrow marriage to heterosexual relationships. All of this inspired fervent resistance to the Walker administration, both within Wisconsin and nationally, much as the Trump administration does now. He was nevertheless successful, for nearly a decade, in holding together a decisive majority coalition of Wisconsinites (something, worth noting simply as an aside, that Trump does not ever seem likely to do in the nation at large, or in Wisconsin itself).
Then there are the state's representatives in our foremost legislative body— the radical polarity of which similarly befuddles centrist expectations of a purple state. Republican Ron Johnson, elected in 2010, and Democrat Tammy Baldwin, elected in 2012, have each carved out a sustainable base of support, on different sides of the aisle, despite (or because of) their radical proclivities.
Baldwin is widely considered to be among the more progressive members of the senate. Her strong progressive record and willingness to take positions well-left of the mainstream Democratic Party is observable going back two decades, to her time in the lower chamber. In 1999, while serving her first congressional term, she was one of 57 congresspeople to vote against the Financial Services Modernization Act, which (among other effects) eliminated regulations prohibiting the consolidation of investment and commercial banking providers. She has been a vocal proponent of single-payer healthcare for the duration of her time in congress, and introduced single-payer legislation as early as 2000. In 2002, she voted against the authorization of the Iraq War; later in the Bush administration, she was among 26 cosponsors of articles of impeachment against Vice President Dick Cheney, and in 2009, she was among 75 Democrats to oppose an amendment that ultimately deauthorized federal funding for ACORN, the collection of community organizations.
In 2012, she carried this record— and her associated reputation as one of the most liberal members of congress— to a five-point victory over Republican Tommy Thompson, a former governor. As a senator, she has continued to take strong progressive stances on healthcare, immigration, prescription drug policy, labor codetermination, and wealth inequality. She was reelected in 2018 by a margin of nearly eleven points.
Her colleague, Sen. Johnson, has made similarly little effort to cultivate bipartisan appeal. From his initial emergence as a Tea Party-inflected business-conservative (previous to his run for Senate, he had no experience in public service and had spent the entirety of his career working for a plastics manufacturer) to present day, Johnson has embraced both rhetorical and political radicalism over moderate, purple Republicanism.
He actively campaigned on his opposition to the 2009 fiscal stimulus (not an outlying stance among Republicans at the time, but one that put him at odds with the majority of Americans) as well as his strong disbelief in any man-made effect on climate. He railed against the excesses of Social Security and expressed support for multiple proposals to cut benefits. In the 2010 wave, he bested three-term incumbent Russ Feingold by five percentage points.
Johnson has been a steadfast conservative vote in the senate, reliably advocating a rigid right- wing politics on healthcare, climate, immigration, same-sex marriage, and abortion— and in recent years, he has become one of the most zealously Trump-aligned legislators in the body, twisting himself through contortions notable equally for their extremism and pandering. (All in a state in which the president, despite his 2016 victory, consistently registers negative approval ratings.) It became clear early in the administration that Johnson intended to do the president's dirty work: following the failure of the American Health Care Act in March of 2017, Johnson memorably suggested that Senator John McCain's brain tumor had, in conjunction with the time of night, likely played a role in McCain's vote. He has become a prominent booster of unsubstantiated conspiracies of FBI corruption and mutiny, and was an unusually strong apologist for Trump's effort to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, even among his Republican colleagues— he was, arguably, himself a player involved in the effort. He has severely moderated a once-hawkish disposition towards Russia, and in his capacity as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee has pursued information on Hunter Biden's ties to gas company Burisma and other international firms, which was packaged into a report released last month.
Where does this leave each senator, today— in the highly polarized Trump era, in an inherently
polarized state? Morning Consult data on senatorial approval from the fourth quarter of 2019 (the most recent available) suggests that both are poised to continue holding together their coalitions. Each is well underwater with the opposition party, but makes up for that deficit with even more overwhelming support from his or her own base. (Baldwin: -53/+67; Johnson: -26/+54.) Baldwin registers a margin of +5% approval with independents, while Johnson sits at -3%. All in, Baldwin scores a +10%; Johnson scores a +6%.
And this, anecdotally but persuasively, strikes at the philosophical core of the theory of moderate electability— a theory which blanketed our papers, feeds and television screens for months and which ultimately convinced the Democratic primary electorate: that purple districts, purple states, and a purple country are won by splitting the difference between blue and red, and in doing so, minimally repelling an imagined slice of voters in the middle who are liable to swing either way.
It's a theory that already leaves aside all other non-ideological contours along which individual human beings vote— on integrity, on personality, on antiestablishment orientation, on any number of others — and it continues to ignore the incredible polarization of our times, despite widespread recognition of that polarization.
At best, in a strategic quest for the greatest achievable good, it kowtows to a theorized portion of the electorate that may or may not, in this or any given election, compose any substantial number. At worst, its danger is threefold: that the conventional candidate is actually less popular; that what success is won by moderation is fundamentally pyrrhic; and obviously, that some deploying the theory are doing so dishonestly, not out of political pragmatism but in the interest of personal power and enrichment. In which form said deployment is more damaging than we can possibly quantify.
The likely reality is that there are presently merits to both electability arguments—the doctrine of the moderate and the ambition of the radical— and also that both are imperfect frameworks that ultimately meet with entirely unrelated factors on election day. It's plain that while the radical argument is founded on an aspiration, at least at the national level, the moderate one is not the truism its proponents suggest, and it never has been. Early, often, evidenced insistence on this fact to the Democratic electorate is, certainly for now, an important part of successfully pitching the American people on a radical restructuring of government and society.