The sprawling Democratic field for governor and the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team have something in common this winter — both are causing angst.
The basketball team, of course, is a shadow of its usually glorious self, a perfect storm of recruiting misses and key injuries rendering the offense stagnant, the defense porous. The implied question when someone mutters “What about that basketball team?” is whether this year is anomalous or an unhappy sea change.
Among political progressives, a similar tsk-tsk reaction is common when talk turns to the crowd of Democratic candidates for governor who hope to unseat Republican incumbent Scott Walker, a similar shake of the head and look of concern. About a dozen candidates have declared, with nine regarded as top tier, but none as yet seems to clearly stand out.
Yes, these candidates have varying attributes, especially the most prominent of them, but the frequent reaction here in Madison is more often worry than excitement.
That’s too bad, because despite Walker’s $4-million campaign chest, he seems to finally face election-year headwinds rather than the tailwinds that helped him in the past. He had the good fortune to run in non-presidential years with lower voter turnouts in 2010 and 2014, when the GOP performed strongly in both years with President Obama in the White House.
Not so this time. President Trump is galvanizing decent Americans everywhere — women especially — against his unique brand of hatred and lies.
And let’s remember that since Walker last faced state voters, he failed miserably in the 2016 presidential primary despite employing his most extreme rhetoric. He then had to scamper back to Wisconsin with his political tail between his legs. Now he is trying to pivot again to convince residents he is other than the career politician and political extremist he is.
In fact, he will masquerade as caring about public education, job training and all of Wisconsin’s citizens until Election Day, when, if victorious, he would no doubt revert to carrying water for his uber-wealthy donors. Heck, he even tromped around the state with Tommy Thompson recently, hoping some of that popular ex-GOP governor’s good-guy, big-tent authenticity would rub off. Good luck with that.
All the while, Democrats claim they are proud of their many fine candidates, a bursting field replete with bountiful talent from inside and outside politics. The winner, they say, will be battle-toughened by the primary. They predict a unified and highly motivated party.
But my worry is that Democrats will not only spend too much money against one another, it’s that they will pander to a strident political base rather than courting more numerous moderate voters who are just as weary of Walker.
Yes, I know, this might sound like my latest salvo against the Bernie Sanders segment of the party, but I believe many agree with me.
Dietram Scheufele is one, at least when the question is what Democrats need to do to win. He’s a professor in science communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and, I think, an especially keen analyst of political communication.
Two years ago, Scheufele told me that the best chance to counter an anti-science wave in the country was to explain the practical, real-world value of science by highlighting important inventions and research that, say, protect us from biological attack. And don’t, he cautioned, simply name-call climate-change deniers.
He has a similar take on how Democrats should run against Walker, but he’s not seeing it happen so far.
In a recent interview, Scheufele says 2018 reminds him of the failed recall campaign against Walker in 2012. “I think we saw something very similar, when Gov. Walker’s campaign ads had school teachers and others talking about working together and really engaged in a type of politics that people felt like they hadn’t seen from him.
“He was campaigning towards the center and appealing to undecided voters while the Democrats ran a (contested) primary until late in the game,” Scheufele said. “I think we are seeing the same thing again,” with Democrats searching for their niche in a crowded field.
“It actually forces the discussion for a long time into a space that doesn’t really resonate with centrist voters,” Scheufele added.
I agree. Not only might Democratic candidates be inclined to tailor pitches to the party’s most passionate activists, but there is also the nature of the campaign coverage itself.
As a young journalist, I covered many sizable candidate panels and strove to produce some approximate notion of fairness and balance. Meanwhile, candidates are keenly aware that detail and nuance have no chance in this kind of reporting. Instead, one candidate is reduced to being the “expand broadband” guy, another primarily pegged to education, the environment or affordable housing. After reading most of the stories thus far, it would be hard to make an informed choice.
Now, I imagine operatives think me naïve and counter that lots of important and competitive work raising money, securing endorsements and enlisting volunteers is occurring. It’s just out of sight to most of us. To the public, the contest appears muddled, the messaging less than ideal.
Scheufele says Democrats might even emphasize the wrong things.
He argues, for instance, that if they want to win they should not focus much on Act 10, Walker’s notorious anti-labor masterpiece from his first term. In the same way, he says national Democrats are hurting themselves with their focus on the Russia investigation. Such issues “don’t resonate with the economic and security concerns of centrist voters, and I think national Democrats are starting to make a similar mistake.”
To me, Democratic candidates for governor would do well to ponder how best to demonstrate the character, experience, judgment, energy, resolve and charisma to finally defeat a wobbly incumbent.
That, though, might also require Democratic primary voters to not focus on which candidate bellows the loudest at rallies or best demonstrates purity on any favorite issue. Instead, voters should sort through which candidate they can imagine most worrying Walker after the Aug. 14 primary.
One hopes voters are looking for someone they can believe is actually interested in all of us — urban or rural, white or not, affluent or otherwise — someone who believes it is time for Wisconsin to come together again after eight exhausting years of Walker’s brand of division and resentment.
I can dream, can’t I?
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