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Road to future of the Democratic Party runs through northern Wisconsin

John Nichols, Cap Times

September 3, 2019

Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy will quit his House seat later this month, and the special election to replace him offers Democrats a golden opportunity to frame out the next politics of the state — and the nation. If a Democrat wins the seat, or even comes close, the message will be that Democrats are renewing their fortunes in rural America.

Democrats have a base to build from in Duffy’s 7th District. But to get the result they want, and need, they will have to show up, organize and invest the resources that are required. That’s a tall order. But it’s an essential one for a party that narrowly lost the state in the last presidential election.

Duffy’s sprawling northern Wisconsin district is one of the most rural in the country. It leans Republican but it has plenty of blue voters. Donald Trump carried it in 2016, and Mitt Romney narrowly won it in 2012. But Barack Obama took it in 2008. The district has its share of small-town conservatives. Yet it’s got hotbeds of old-school rural progressivism that send populist Democrats to the Legislature. Native Americans have deep roots in the region, and there are small but growing Asian-American and Latinx communities.

That’s the base to build from in the 7th. The race will be hard. But this one must be run and it must be run well. Ben Wikler, the new chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, knows this. He said, “Democrats are fighting for every square inch of Wisconsin — rural, suburban and urban alike.” His commitment is vital. But there also must be a commitment from national party committees and strategists. They have to recognize that to win rural regions of Wisconsin and other states, the party must run smart.

The party can’t afford to repeat past mistakes. For instance, Democratic strategists must recognize that abandoning progressive principles will get Democrats nowhere. The key is to mobilize new voters and to build the party back up in communities across Wisconsin where it was winning until recently.

Only a decade ago, maps of U.S. House seats showed vast swaths of blue in the rural regions of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota. From the 1930s through the 2000s, Democrats secured House seats not just in big cities, college towns, and selected suburbs but also in farm country and the small towns of the Great Lakes states, the Upper and Lower Midwest, and the Great Plains. Long after “the solid South” began to swing from Democrats to Republicans, states along the Canadian border and just south of it continued to elect progressive populist Democrats to the House and Senate.

But today, despite Democratic gains in 2018, the congressional map is way redder across the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest than it used to be. From 2010 to 2016, Democrats lost five U.S. Senate seats in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. And they’ve kept losing Northern-tier House seats. Northern Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District — a Democratic stronghold dating back to Harry Truman’s presidency, with just one two-year break — flipped Republican in 2018.

So how do Democrats reverse what can only be described as a losing streak in rural America? They have to run campaigns that speak to the distinct character of the rural and small-town districts of Northern-tier states such as Wisconsin. To do this, they must reject cookie-cutter Washington programs and strategies — especially when it comes to talking to farmers.

There was a farm crisis before President Trump started his trade war, and the party needs to recognize that fact. Wisconsin lost almost 700 dairy farms in 2018, a rate of nearly two a day. Now, as the president’s incoherent policies make things steadily worse, anger is rising. That anger has, in past elections, created an opening for Democrats, and it could again in the 2019 special election to replace Duffy.

But Democrats need to offer more than criticism of Trump and “feel your pain” platitudes. They must talk about the real economics of rural America — recognizing that farm policy is vital, but that it’s also necessary to renew small manufacturing, small business and infrastructure. And Democrats must make it clear that they will keep rural schools and post offices open because when they leave, small towns begin to waste away.

There’s a hopeful sign in the fact that at least some Democratic presidential candidates “get” rural. Elizabeth Warren’s New Deal–style commitment to building out broadband is terrific. Bernie Sanders is great on sustaining small farmers. However, while individual candidates are solid, the party is not. Its 2016 Democratic platform barely mentioned rural concerns, and the party’s messaging even now is agonizingly vapid.

To get it right, Wisconsin Democrats should borrow from the plans developed by Sanders and Warren — and invite these progressive contenders to make campaign swings through the northland. They should listen to rural advocates, especially the National Farmers Union, the National Family Farm Coalition, Native American tribes, and groups that represent the burgeoning Latinx population — such as Wisconsin’s Voces de la Frontera. They can link up with labor organizations that have members in the north, including the National Association of Rural Letter Carriers, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the American Postal Workers Union, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

Above all, they must seize every opportunity to win races where they won not so long ago. They can do that by running hard for Duffy’s seat, and by making a commitment to keep running until the map flips blue.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.

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