Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Democrats in Disarray

The firing of its state spokesperson is just another sign the party has lost its way.

By - Mar 12th, 2013 11:50 am
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These are not good days for Democrats. Many were hoping for Gov. Scott Walker to run afoul of the John Doe probe, but that didn’t happen. The destruction of public unions by Act 10 has left WEAC, the once-mighty state teachers union, as a shadow of itself. This spring’s election for the Wisconsin Supreme Court is likely to see as much as $2 million in third party expenditures by right wing groups to reelect Justice Pat Roggensack, while WEAC, AFSCME and other unions and left-leaning groups spend little or nothing. It’s hardly a fair battle.

The spending advantage for Walker’s reelection bid in 2014 probably won’t be quite as big, but it will be substantial, and so far, no strong candidate has emerged to oppose the governor. Meanwhile, yet another right-wing advocacy group has popped up, Charlie Sykes’ Right Wisconsin website. While it may not have many readers (and probably never will so long it requires a paid subscription), it is yet another organization parroting the GOP message.

Graeme Zielinski

Graeme Zielinski

Amid all this bad news we had the spectacle of the state Democratic Party shooting itself in the foot, as Communications Director Graeme Zielinski tweeted remarks comparing Walker to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. In the ensuing uproar, Zielinski apologized and was removed from his position (though he remains on the party payroll), and the state party gained a black eye from the national press, with USA Today reporting Zielinski’s preposterous comparison and noting that Dahmer, after all, had murdered 17 men and boys. It could have been worse, I suppose: the paper left out Dahmer’s cannibalism.

Yes, Zielinski was supposed to be the attack dog who slams the opposition in a way that  Democratic politicians must diplomatically avoid, but he too often went overboard, accusing Walker of helping a man accused of child sexual enticement, or referring to “liar Charlie Sykes” or “adulterer Charlie Sykes.” As a self-described “entertainer,” Sykes can be as nasty as he pleases, and he’s not technically a representative of the GOP, so trying to match Sykes in outrageousness is a fool’s game that made Zielinski and the party look stupid.

Zielinski, moreover, “regularly accused journalists of incompetence and bias,” as Cap Times writer Jack Craver has noted, devoting an entire column to Zielinski’s outlandish style.

Some Dems and liberals have defended Zielinski. Ruth Conniff, Political Editor of Progressive Magazine, praised him as “always fun because he was not only outrageous, he was passionate about defending Wisconsin from pillage by Walker’s corporate cronies who want to liquidate everything good about our state.”

But the notion that Walker is so bad that any kind of condemnation is justified, is exactly the attitude that led to the recall defeat. The Democrats had plenty of outrage, but lacked an issue the majority of voters believed justified a recall: 60 of 72 counties supported Walker.

Walker continues to be a very polarizing figure. Recent surveys by Public Policy Polling show 48 percent of voters approve of his performance and 49 percent disapprove. That makes him sound vulnerable, but once he’s matched against a Democrat, there tends to be an even split. Even the most popular possible Democrat, former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold leads Walker by 49 to 47 percent, but Feingold has no interest in running. Everyone else runs behind Walker, including Congressman Ron Kind (by 46-42 percent), Assembly minority leader Peter Barca (48-43), State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (48-42), former congressman Steve Kagen (48-41), and union leader Mahlon Mitchell (48-39), the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor in the recall election.

Kind has turned down overtures to run for governor before and is unlikely to run. None of the other candidates seems all that formidable. And what’s the issue? Republican legislators look likely to moderate Walker’s budget, to provide more funding for public schools, which could smooth the edges of that issue. The tax cut will help Walker with most voters. He is most vulnerable on his promise to create 250,000 jobs, but that takes the right candidate, who can convince voters he/she is a job creator.

As Conniff has noted, there’s also been talk that Madison biotech exec Kevin Conroy could run as a kind of Democratic Ron Johnson — a successful businessman and “job creator” with deep enough pocketbooks to pay for a high-cost campaign. But Conroy has so far said nothing publicly about his intentions.

Whoever the likely candidate, the Democrats aren’t going to win with nastiness, nor with calls to overthrow Act 10. It’s a new era in this ever-changing state, and Walker has very successfully grabbed the high ground on the issues. Democrats certainly face a huge challenge with no simple solutions, but won’t be solved by comparing Walker to mass murderers.

Republican Gerrymandering Reconsidered

Much has been written about the seemingly anti-Democratic impact of Republican redistricting. Nationally, the Democrats got 51 percent of votes for congress, but Republicans won a 234-201 majority in the House. In Wisconsin, Republicans received 49 percent of the total vote, but won five of eight (62.5 percent) of the congressional seats. This led many writers, including me, to point the finger at Republican gerrymandering.

But a recent analysis by the Washington Post Wonkblog ran the data in many different ways and concluded that redistricting accounted for, at most, a swing of only 7 congressional seats

The analysis found that Republicans have had a built-in geographic advantage since at least the early 1990s because Democrats are heavily concentrated in urban districts where a logically-drawn district ends up with more “wasted votes” than Republican-leaning districts. The analysis was seconded by super wonk Nate Silver, who noted that Democrats may earn 80 to 90 percent of the vote in some urban districts, while even the most conservative districts typically don’t poll more than 75 percent Republican.

No one has applied that kind of analysis to Wisconsin — where Republicans won 74 percent of contested assembly seats with just 52 percent of the total vote — but there are some heavily-Democratic seats in both Milwaukee and Madison that likely lead the way in “wasted votes” and would help explain the over-performance of the GOP.

All of which presents an interesting contradiction. Nationally, we know the Democrats enjoy an electoral college advantage: Silver has estimated that Mitt Romney would have had to win the popular vote by as much as three percent to win the electoral college. Meanwhile, Republicans have a built-in advantage for congressional districts.

A non-partisan Solomon might propose this compromise: all state redistricting should be done by independent commissions (whose decisions have typically been much fairer) to reduce gerrymandering by Republican or Democratic legislatures, while the electoral college is ended and the popular vote is used to elect presidents. It would be a two-fold victory for democracy.

Short Takes

-Ron Johnson has announced he will run for reelection in 2016. That won’t be easy for the Republican, not only because his current approval rating of 37 percent (versus 41 percent disapproving) is so low. The other problem is he won office in a low-turnout (2010) election and must now run in a high-turnout presidential election year. Polls now show Feingold would win a rematch, but don’t be so sure he will run. I’m told Ron Kind is seriously considering a challenge and is already raising money. Kind is a more moderate Democrat who represents a swing district, while Johnson ranks to the right of 95 percent of his Senate colleagues, which could make him vulnerable.

-Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the former Milwaukee archbishop, has a chance to become Pope, but the oddsmaker say it’s a very slim one. They rank him as 16th most likely, with 3 percent chance of winning. He is not even the top-rated American cardinal on the list.

Categories: Murphy's Law

14 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Democrats in Disarray”

  1. Garrick Jannene says:

    Years of Tate and company trying to out Tea Party the Tea Party through hyperpartisan political hyperbole has finally caught up with them. We really need a complete housecleaning at the state level.

    The only thing I feel good about in the next 4 years as a Dem is Ron Kind’s chances against Ron Johnson. And that’s not because I feel good about Kind, it’s that I think Johnson is a fluke. Walker will get re-elected unless Feingold runs. The state legislature will probably stay Republican for the foreseeable future.

    Also, WI-3 has a Cook PVI of D +6 after the last redistricting round. Is that really a swing district at that point? Seems like a lean Democrat to me.

  2. Nicholas says:

    The DPW leadership needs to be removed, there is a serious case of group-think over there, they are way disconnected from what the state actually cares about, and are (still) focused on Walker.

    RoJo should watch out for Kind, he is well known throughout western Wisconsin, and can be credible on issues such as gun rights, conserving hunting and fishing lands, and fiscal responsibility.

  3. Bruce Murphy says:

    Garrick, yes, you could call it lean Democrat. Republicans made Duffy’s district more safe by making Kind’s more safe, but it’s still a competitive district, unlike most in the state, which is why I called it a swing district. The right kind of Republican challenger could run a competitive campaign.

  4. Cee Cee says:

    If you hire an attack dog, yes, don’t be surprised if it attacks — and gets you in trouble for it.

    I always have been troubled by the hiring of Zielinski, owing to his record from ‘way back, since he was a student journalist. He considered his nastiness, his bias, and his tendency to go overboard quite entertaining, too — just like Sykes.

    Being just like Sykes is not the answer, Dems. Who hired him? Fire him, too.

  5. roz says:

    i am wondering where is the voice for democrats. walker keeps rolling a long in a most disturbing way and where is the opposing voice. very upsetting.

  6. Andrew says:

    Great post as always Mr. Murphy!

    It was no secret at the 2011 Democratic Convention that Ron Kind was considering a challenge to the Senate Seat that ultimately went to Tammy Baldwin. At that time he capitalized on the energized and over-large turnout to the convention and still sends out mailers to people from all corners of WI who attended. Him being a challenger to Sen. Johnson in 2016 is only logical, and while many Progressives may thumb their nose at some of his votes, he’s a reliable Democrat on many issues.

    As for saying his District is “swing” is maybe a little premature. With the exception of 2010 and the 2011 Recall Election, most counties he has represented have been reliably Democratic.

    Lastly, your points about the State Democrats ring very true in many Progressive’s ears. What we need more than a candidate, which many “popular” media types like to focus on, is a message. Two years after the signing of Act 10 without a solid and discernible message is the single greatest failure after the recall election loss for the DPW.

  7. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Remember what Will Rogers said: “I do not belong to any organized poliitcal party, I am a democrat. Democrats are always disorganized but pull together to win elections. Never underestimate them as may Republicans do. They will have a candidate for governor and he or she will be competitive.

  8. Bruce Thompson says:

    Governor Walker has a coherent world view, one shared by many of the most powerful forces in the Republican party. It may be wrong, and ultimately destructive to Wisconsin, but it is consistent. Certainly if jobs are the measure of success, it cannot point to success. But at least it is consistent and has many believers.

    But where is a competing vision from the Democratic side? One that will cause people who are wavering to believe that the state would be better, more prosperous, with more jobs, and where their kids won’t have to move away. I don’t see it, and it is hard to see where it will come from.

    With Democrats lacking a compelling vision, it is safest for the Democratic party to spend its time and money attacking Walker and the Republicans, and that is what it has done. Putting forth a positive vision of reform would run afoul of some of the groups that make up the party.

    Will the vision come from the legislature? Most of them represent safe seats where the challenge, if any, would come from the primary. So few of them have an incentive to think about how to win over the voters who have been lost. Few come from the Kind kind of district.

    Yet to win control of the legislature, Democrats need an eight to ten point spread. So as a party they have every incentive to work a broadening their appeal. But at this point I don’t see where the leadership will come from.

    emails from the Democratic Party seem much more oriented at stirring up the base than broadening the appeal of Democrats.

  9. Mike says:

    As a conservative, here’s my take:

    - I love reading Bruce Murphy’s takes. A lot of times I’ll disagree with them, but they are well written and compelling pieces.

    - You guys need some serious people in your party. You need some people who are thought leaders. Who are the real leaders of the Democratic party. Mike Tate and Graeme Zielinski often come across as unhinged. Gwen Moore? What is she a real leader on? Ron Kind sort of comes across as a harmless empty suit. Tom Barrett? A guy who wants any job other than Mayor provided he doesn’t have to get a private sector job. Herb Kohl? He won because he was a harmless nice guy who owned the Bucks. What was he leading on? What’s his view. Contrast that to Reince Priebus, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Ron Johnson and Sean Duffy. You may hate their positions, but they are out there helping to lead their side. You know where they stand and they are attempting to take on serious issues. The Democrats need people who are thought leaders on these important issues like tax reform, spending, social security, medicare, health care etc.

    - Bruce Thompson nails this. Most times you need to offer your own plan in order to win. Tom Barrett’s plan the first time around was “I’m a nice guy” and the second time he really had no plan at all. If the Democrats want to beat Walker they’ll need a plan beyond “Scott Walker is evil.”. Walker will fall short on the 250,000 job thing which was a stupid pledge, but he will have a balanced budget. He will have kept taxes in line. Like it or not, Walker also has policy ideas. You may not agree with them, but you have a good idea where he’s coming from. I think that’s a big reason why he kept winning the County Executive job.

    - I would not underestimate Ron Johnson. I think Wisconsin responds to people who take some leadership. For example, Paul Ryan easily wins a district that should be much closer each time. Johnson is at the forefront of these economic debates and it’s hard to turn on CNBC or the Sunday talk shows without seeing him.

    If I’m not mistaken he beat Feingold by a larger margin that Walker won by. Bruce is right about a high turn out election being a tougher obstacle for Johnson. After all, Tammy Baldwin managed to win in 2012, but she had also benefitted from a huge money advantage after a contentious Republican primary. I think much of 2016 will come down to the economy. If we’re still in a slow growth mode the Democrats are going to have a tough go of it because they’ll have had 8 years in charge. People were sick of GW Bush after 8 years and they’ll be equally sick of Obama unless the economy really starts to kick into gear.

  10. DHRadcliffe says:

    Duffy can be beat, Ribble can be beat, Ryan can be beat, and Petri and Sensenbrenner need serious opposition if they choose to run again, so that the candidate can position him or herself for the future open seat. To beat Walker, we need serious voter registration campaigns in at least all three congressional districts for the off year election. Walker prevailed in the recall because students were out for the summer and couldn’t register at home, and people who weren’t excited about Barrett (for good reason) in Milwaukee also stayed home. He is beatable with the right candidate and serious organizing in these three to five congressional districts. The only way to build new leadership is to run against incumbents over and over again. We saw some great new leadership emerge last year in Edward McDonald, Rob Zerban, Kathleen Vinehout, and Jess King, and others that I don’t know, although I think Vinehout might be gerrymandered into Kind’s District??? Some other great leaders: Peter Barca, Peg Lautenschlager, Jon Erbenbach, and Steve Kagan. We need to hear more from them more consistently.

  11. Jed Starnes says:

    @DHRadcliffe: If that is truly your list of the WISDEMS “great leaders,” I think you’ve explained better why your side keeps getting its collective arse handed to it on a plate in nearly everything it tries to do than Bruce Murphy ever could. Thanks so much for the laugh, though.

    Incidentally, how could you possibly leave Gwen Moore off your “list?”

  12. Catherine says:

    Good article. I saw GZ as carrying out his assignment really, so I blame an out of touch, ineffective State Democratic leadership for the poor communications strategy the past few years. And they desperately need a strong communications strategy. From their tired state party logo to non-informational, hyper-partisan pressers, to an anemic use of Social Media (except of course GZ’s personal social media, problematic for different reasons) to poor message timing, it seems to all be run by amateurs. I’d agree that the priority should first be placed on developing a strong, appealing party platform and identifying a few leaders to move it forward. But then get the word out professionally, often and strategically across audiences. On another note, all the Democratic blogs wonder whether Feingold can’t be prevailed to lead the Party back from this seeming abyss. I met him the day after he was elected for the first time to the U.S. Senate while on his way to a WPR interview in Vilas. He seemed absolutely fresh and full of energy and strength, unlike those of us waiting for our 7 am news writing class to begin. I never thought that same man would years later lose once and instead of picking himself up, just sit it out on the bench, licking his wounds thereafter. What a disappointment that the one strong, progressive voice in our state can’t be torn away from light lecturer duties and railing against a SCOTUS decision that’s over and done with.

  13. Big Dog says:

    I don’t think WEAC or AFSCME ever spent heavily in Suprme Court races after the Bradley election a number of years ago. The unions (particularly WEAC) supported Bradley and then she recused herself in cases involving their issues. So, the unions did nothing as Clifford and Butler went down in flames — and the Court tilted right wing.

    Nevertheless, your point is well taken. The Dems are in a world of hurt without the unions. That’s why Walker dropped the bomb — and now there’s basically nothing left.

    The real problem for the Dems isn’t that they lack leaders. The problem is they will be outspent by at least five or six to one in every meaningful Wisconsin government election for the foreseeable future. If you heavily outspend a candidate in modern politics you will generally win — like about 90 % of the time. It’s always been that way and will continue to be that way as long as t.v., mail and other paid media is so important in persuading voters.

    If the Dems could get a boatload of out of state money (like the Republicans have done) they could be competitive again — and quickly.

  14. DHRadcliffe says:

    I also wonder where the “loyal opposition” voice is. I don’t know if the media has changed or if it just isn’t happening. There should be an oppositional response to Walker’s propaganda machine and mean spirited budget provisions from a consistent spokesperson or a chosen one or several informed legislators, to bring visibility across the state to the other informed points of view. Maybe even one person in each media market… But, wouldn’t that be the job of the Dem Party to coordinate and track?

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