Democrats Must Change Strategy
Stop bashing Walker and start addressing issues like taxes.
It’s been six years of Democrats living in the red state of Wisconsin. I’m not a fan of “red state/blue state” terminology but Wisconsinites have, in recent years, shown a consistent trend of buying the Republican message and paying them with votes.
After 2010, Democrats wondered, “How did this happen? How can we change?” The lucky break of President Barack Obama and Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2012 was not felt down-ticket, where Republicans held the advantage in the state Legislature.
After 2014, Democrats wondered, “How did this happen? How can we change?” In 2016, there was an assumption Democrats would ride a wave down-ticket. However, it was quite the opposite. Wisconsin voters favored a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since the 1980s, rejected former Sen. Russ Feingold and further rewarded Republicans with legislative seats when everyone thought Democrats had already hit rock bottom.
Yet again, Democrats are wondering, “How did this happen? How can we change?”
The answer is simple.
First, Democrats need to stop saying, “You’re voting wrong” to people who support Republicans. A vote is a calculation made by an individual based on what he or she feels is best for family, pocketbook and community. It’s a reflection of that individual’s values. Imagine someone telling you that your values are wrong. It’s an easy way to have a door slammed in your face. A voter like that will wonder, “What do they know about my values?” Don’t do it. Ever.
Third, it’s time to get real about the issues that matter. That means Democrats have to start supporting tax reform and address the burden of property taxes while creating real incentives for small businesses and farmers, aka, “Main Street.” Democrats can’t concede this issue because it’s a “Republican issue.” That’s a lazy excuse. It’s time Democrats get tough and talk about the issues that matter most in the small towns and rural communities where they need to win.
Republicans are able to march into rural communities and talk about the plight of the Wisconsin farmer in Fond du Lac County and the taxes that burden the small business owner in Wausau. There’s no reason Democrats can’t do the same while still adhering to their values.
Gerrymandering exists, yes. But Democrats can’t sit around waiting for the courts to draw new maps when they have no real agenda. Voters still will be saying, “They don’t speak for me.”
Democrats need to stop talking about Walker and start talking about their own agenda. Breaking news: Bashing Walker and issuing some press releases has gotten Democrats nowhere. It’s time to start thinking differently. Democrats don’t need expensive long-term studies to realize they can start winning if they have an agenda focused on Main Street issues, show respect to the electorate and produce some results.
With a Republican president, 2018 will see the one (near) certainty in American politics: the midterm effect. While there’s a strong probability a national wave will usher in Democratic candidates across the country, Wisconsin Democrats still need to speak the language of Main Street in order to win.
Democrats can stand up for labor, public education and all the values they hold dear while still delivering a message and results that will make voters think, “They speak for me.”
Politics is simple marketing. The party is the brand, the candidate is the product, the consumer is the voter and the currency is votes. There can be a great product being sold, but if you don’t trust the brand, you’ll stick to what you know. And, right now, Wisconsin loves that GOP soda.
Brandon Savage, M.A. is a political and communications consultant in Milwaukee and associate lecturer for University of Wisconsin Colleges.
This op ed first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.