Democrats in Disarray
The firing of its state spokesperson is just another sign the party has lost its way.
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.
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.
-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.
People: Charlie Sykes, Graeme Zielinski, Jon Erpenbach, Kevin Conroy, Mahlon Mitchell, Mitt Romney, Patience Roggensack, Peter Barca, Ron Johnson, Ron Kind, Russ Feingold, Scott Walker, Steve Kagen, Timothy Dolan
Government: State of Wisconsin