With the state weary from a long, drawn-out war overseas, one of Wisconsin’s political parties was taking a beating at the polls. The party’s national elected officials had gone to war seven years previously, and voters were demonstrating their displeasure at the ballot box. The party, which had strayed significantly from its traditional values, was a mere afterthought in Wisconsin government, and appeared to be sinking even lower.
Then Jim Doyle showed up to save it. Not the current governor, the other one.
The year was 1948, and Democrats in Wisconsin were foundering. German voters, who had traditionally been Democrats, had fled the party due in large part to Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany in 1918. (At the time, many of Wisconsin’s Germans were still foreign born, and had ties to the homeland.) While German Americans in Wisconsin were very much in favor of U.S. involvement in World War II, the war reinforced their desire to stay away from the Democratic Party. The Progressive Party in Wisconsin was nearly extinct, and many of its members were returning to the Republican Party, from whence they came in 1934.
By 1948, it had been sixteen years since a Democrat had won the Wisconsin governorship (former Madison Mayor Alfred Schmedeman, who served only one two-year term). Even worse, Democrats won only three Wisconsin gubernatorial elections in the previous 73 years and had been in the minority in the State Senate and Assembly since 1893. For four straight legislative sessions (1923-1929), there were no Democrats in the Senate. The 1925 Assembly featured 92 Republicans, one Democrat, and seven Socialist Party members.
In May of 1948, several upstarts within the Democratic Party met in Fond du Lac to chart a course for a new, revitalized party. Among the attendees were Jim Doyle Sr., Ruth Doyle, Horace Wilkie, and Gaylord Nelson. The “Young Turks,” as they were called, formed the Democratic Organizing Committee (DOC), with the intent of circumventing the traditional, more conservative (and largely ineffective) Democratic Party leadership. In doing so, they began planting the seeds for future Democratic success in Wisconsin. Their dream came to fruition in 1957, when Bill Proxmire won the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Joseph McCarthy prior to his death. A year later, Gaylord Nelson won the Wisconsin governorship.
It was the plan formulated in the nascent years of the DOC that precipitated Wisconsin eventually becoming a state where Democrats could once again succeed. Doyle, Nelson, Patrick Lucey, and others worked tirelessly to organize county parties and recruit members, which was a tough task for a party that had been struggling so mightily for so long. As Doyle famously once said, “There are places around the state where it takes courage to be a Democrat. The few professed Democrats are like the early Christians. They feel as though they should hold their meetings in the catacombs.”
It is now 2008, and another of Wisconsin’s major political parties in on the ropes. Wisconsin Republicans are still feeling the backlash from a long war, just as Democrats had in 1948. The party has largely lost its identity, with voters unable to differentiate its platform on taxes and spending from that of the Democrats.
If there’s any good news, it is that Wisconsin Republicans aren’t in anywhere near as bad shape as the Democrats were in 1948. While the war is still unpopular, it doesn’t offend the national pride of any voting bloc in Wisconsin politics. (This type of mass defection is unlikely to happen to the Republicans unless John McCain declares war on the Green Bay Packers.) The Assembly is still Republican, but by a shrinking margin. Republicans in the Senate only need to pick up two seats to retake the majority that they lost in stunning fashion in 2006.
Yet even if Republicans were able to buck the odds and regain majorities in both houses, nobody really expects any shift towards fiscal conservatism. Wisconsin citizens will see that the Republican Party is currently propped up on a rotting foundation, set adrift with few principles, and no platform on which to stand.
What Wisconsin Republicans need to do now is to follow the DOC blueprint for revitalizing the party. If that means a group of talented insiders get together and plot the overthrow of the current leadership, then so be it. It won’t be easy work, and certainly the national GOP zeitgeist will affect the amount of change that can be felt at the state level. The reason Democrats in Wisconsin are such a formidable foe is because of the efforts of a handful of individuals determined to breathe life into their party’s corpse. So it can be done, and the future of the Republican Party in Wisconsin depends on it.
When the new GOP braintrust gets together, here are some suggestions for a blueprint back into the majority:
BUILD AND BREAK CONSTITUENCIES
When Democrats built themselves into a majority in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, they did so by consolidating existing constituencies and building new ones. Labor unions banded together within the Democratic Party, and former Progressives found the party much more to their liking. Perhaps most importantly, they recognized what effect the expansion of government dependency would have on their base. Democrats recognized the fact that when more individuals received a check from the government, those individuals would become Democratic voters. They would continue to support the party that would keep the checks rolling in. As government grows and grows, so do the fortunes of those chained to a government check – so the built-in constituency will always be there to lobby for Democrats.
Republicans don’t have to stand on the sidelines in building constituencies for their programs, and constituencies don’t have to be built solely on government handouts. Getting people hooked on tax incentives and less government regulation can resonate.
For instance, the GOP needs more people to become dependent on programs that employ free market principles, to make sure voters know such programs can succeed. Last week, the Wisconsin State Journal highlighted a charter school set up to teach Native American children their traditional Ojibway language and culture. Charter schools are a perfect example of how educational choice can empower parents to direct how they want their children to be educated. Just because a program is conservative, it doesn’t have to benefit fat, cigar-chomping white guys.
Additionally, Milwaukee shouldn’t have a monopoly on school choice – it should be a topic statewide for two reasons: First, so out-state school districts and parents don’t see it as the enemy of their kids’ schools and cheer for its demise. Second, because as it becomes a state issue, more momentum statewide will grow, laying the groundwork for more educational choice in areas other than just Milwaukee. School choice is one of Wisconsin’s crown jewels, and should be discussed by Republicans statewide.
However, school choice is only one area where the GOP can create a new statewide constituency. Health Savings Accounts have been around as an issue for a decade, but Republicans seem content to allow HSAs to twist in the wind as a merely theoretical issue. The longer that happens, the more skepticism people will have that they can actually work. Where’s the Republican plan to give all state employees HSAs instead of the traditional budget-busting health coverage? Why aren’t they telling everyone who will listen that the best way to show that HSAs work is to build a market with the 70,000 state employees? That would be a pretty good start – and for the naysayers that think the unions would never let that happen, ask the unions what they think of the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO), which restricts teacher salaries. It can happen.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Building a permanent GOP majority means going where the voters are and locking them down as Republican voters. For the GOP in Wisconsin, that means heading west.
For the political nerds living in the Milwaukee-Madison corridor, the picture of Wisconsin is clear; Madison is liberal, Waukesha is conservative. For the most part, those two counties should cancel each other out. That leaves the rest of the state to offset liberal Milwaukee. Green Bay and the Fox Valley help Republicans, while areas like Stevens Point and Wausau favor Democrats.
This analysis ignores a sleeping giant in Western Wisconsin that should be fertile ground for the GOP in the years to come. St. Croix County is the fastest growing county in the state, and is solidly Republican. It’s difficult for people to picture, but one day St, Croix will be the Waukesha County of the west. It is a Twin Cities suburb in the same way Washington and Ozaukee Counties are Milwaukee suburbs. It would be a huge mistake for the state GOP to ignore the growth potential in that area of the state. Lock down the growth areas, and that means more GOP voters statewide in the years to come.
Furthermore, more attention need be paid to Southwestern Wisconsin. This is an area that was once solidly Republican; yet lackluster leadership and disinterested elected officials have now handed the lower half of the 3rd Congressional District over to the Democrats. While their GOP state senators and representatives may have been able to do enough constituent service to keep them in office, those days are long gone as the population continues to slip out of their grasp. The area needs a dynamic Republican representative who is actually interested in selling the statewide GOP message, rather than merely pushing parochial bills to stay in office. There’s no better indicator that people are willing to vote for a Republican than the fact that they actually used to.
TRIM THE WEEDS
A concerted effort should be made to cut the dead weight out of Wisconsin’s contingent of GOP elected officials. A senator or representative who sits in a solidly Republican district and does nothing with it is an albatross around the neck of the state party.
In this respect, primaries can be an invaluable tool in the quest for a more vibrant GOP statewide. In fact, “Fighting Bob” LaFollette championed primaries primarily because he knew he could wrest control of the Republican party away from the conservatives in the 1890’s. Through LaFollette’s liberal (and often vindictive) use of primaries, he was able to shape the GOP in the Progressive image throughout the early 1900s. And it can be primaries once again that should be used to trim the noxious weeds from the ranks of the GOP elected officials.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a district needs the most conservative representative. Certainly, an elected official needs to fit the district in order to ensure election in the November general election. It doesn’t make sense to run a conservative against a moderate if it means that seat is going to go Democrat in the general. But a moderate Republican willing to be active in promoting the statewide GOP message is infinitely more valuable to the effort than one who introduces one bill per session, and who might get around to doing a press release if someone noteworthy in their district dies.
The party cannot sit idly by with do-nothing Republicans hogging seats in areas where a vibrant newcomer could freshen the party’s image. These seats have to be viewed not as what they are, but as what they could be. Plus, they are a farm system for major state offices in the future. (For instance, the 1950 Legislature had four future governors in its ranks, as well as two future U.S. Senators and the mother of a future governor.) Representatives who sleepwalk through their jobs in these valuable seats are clogging the arteries of the future GOP circulatory system.
REPUBLICAN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
Fair or not, voters pick candidates they are comfortable with. More and more, these voters are growing increasingly uncomfortable with white males. The minorities that currently vote Republican do so primarily because they don’t like other minorities, not necessarily because they trust white guys to do the right thing.
There are minorities out there that share the GOP message of limited government, low taxes, and family values. And women have been dropping quickly in the ranks of Republican elected officials. An effort should be made to recruit them to run for office, and they should quickly move to the front of the line in GOP leadership. And if they get better committee assignments or party support than a deserving white legislator who’s been in office for a decade, so be it. Get over it, whitey.
Think about it – in order to become a majority party once again, the GOP needs new voters. And where is the growth in new voters going to come? It’s going to come in the minority groups that are growing more quickly. If Republicans stick with caucasians to pull the freight, the party will be infinitely disappointed as their base shrinks. And the best way to convince minority voters that the GOP is a safe place for their vote is to prove it through their slate of candidates.
Furthermore, we have seen recently how much attention minority candidates can draw. Set aside the media love affair with Barack Obama. Look at Bobby Jindal in Louisiana – the guy gets elected as governor ten minutes ago, and before my hot pocket cools off, he’s already mentioned as a serious Vice Presidential candidate. This isn’t because Jindal is necessarily a political genius – it is because he represents the changing face of politics. A change the GOP desperately needs if it seeks to grow its base.
(As a side note, women and minorities deserve to be elected for reasons other that just making Republicans look better. Thought that should be mentioned.)
Exactly what is the Republican message in the upcoming state and national elections?
Can any Wisconsin resident name a single accomplishment of the GOP in the past two years?
Naturally, Republicans are at a disadvantage when taking credit for certain governmental “achievements” (which may actually be an oxymoron.) It is easy for Democrats to say they “funded drugs for seniors” or “supported expansion of the Stewardship program.” Simple and direct. Republicans have to explain what governmental initiatives they blocked, and why we’ll all be better off because of something they have denied us. Of course, a detailed explanation of the role of market economics and how free trade makes our lives better is usually out of the question. Personally, I would much prefer eating a burrito right now over a conservative telling me how Milton Friedman’s theories enable me to one day have the freedom to purchase my own burrito. Dude, I’m hungry.
Yet, as George Will has recently said, conservatives have one thing going for them. Market-based conservatism is the truth. And, as difficult as that may be, that truth has to be made understandable. The longer people are allowed to be told that gas prices are going to fall if Barack Obama doesn’t accept money from oil companies, the longer the GOP will flounder with voters. The basic fact is this: students aren’t being taught economics in school. State and local Republican parties have to break down the door with a message of financial literacy.
Furthermore, Republicans should be the party willing to talk to voters like grown-ups. We can handle it. Being against bogus campaign finance reform proposals doesn’t make you look like you’re pro-corruption. It makes you look like you value free speech. Cowering from the inevitable critics of allowing private Social Security accounts doesn’t gain you any votes – it makes you look like a spineless coward.
Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan has led the way in this regard, with his recent plan to pull the U.S. out of fiscal insolvency by recognizing the entitlement disaster heading our way. The longer the state is willing to fix its budget woes with gimmicks and deferred obligations, and as long as Republicans are willing to accede to such nonsense, the party has no ground on which to stand when the fiscal apocalypse comes.
Of course, getting Republicans statewide to coalesce around any one message is like stapling Jell-O to a wall. But having more willing carriers of the message (See point 3) will help immeasurably.
Do this, and the state goes GOP overnight. Instead of being motivated to go to the polls, half of the City of Madison will be motivated to watch I Love Lucy reruns, eat Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch, and nap.
None of the Young Turk Democrats in 1948 thought their party’s turnaround was going to be immediate. Young Democrats like Jim Doyle, Sr. drove from county to county to rebuild the party from scratch. (A feat that would be a lot less possible if his son’s proposal to raise the gas tax by seven cents had been in effect in 1948.) They had to patience to plant the seeds, and put in the hard work that eventually made them a force in Wisconsin politics. The GOP should thank Doyle for his blueprint.
-June 9, 2008
Helpful historical sources for this commentary include “Wisconsin Votes,” by Robert Booth Fowler, and “The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson,” by Bill Christofferson.
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