Is Democratic Chair Fight A Struggle for Party’s Soul?

If there’s one thing that unites most Democrats in Wisconsin and the rest of the country, it is hatred of Donald Trump and other elected Republicans such as Scott Walker and Paul Ryan. Beyond that, they are as divided as ever on everything from stances on public policy to where to take the party politically going into the 2018 midterms and beyond.

Yes, political hatred of your opponent can get you far in politics. But it isn’t a substitute for a governing agenda. Just look no further than the state of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and its oncoming fight for its chairmanship set to take place at next month’s state party convention near Madison.

Out of power since the 2010 elections, Wisconsin Democrats have been a largely rudderless ship propelled mainly by their rage against Walker and his agenda. This led to the recalls of 2011 and 2012. It has led to a party that is,  by and large, situated in its twin bases of Madison and Milwaukee; with little presence in out-state and rural Wisconsin.

The 2016 elections marked the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s nadir politically. They saw the state vote for a Republican for the first time since 1984. In addition to that, when most political insiders assumed former Senator Russ Feingold’s return to Washington was eminent, he too lost as Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) staged what can only be called a political comeback for the ages.

On the state level, there’s little for the party to brag about either. Democrats hold little to no influence in the state legislature with November seeing Republicans gain seats in both chambers. The party’s lone statewide constitutional partisan officeholder (Secretary of State Doug LaFollette) is effectively an over-glorified office clerk.

The party’s lone bright spot statewide is U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), but she has Republican challengers circling like sharks as she prepares for her 2018 re-election campaign.

All of these recent failures will be on most delegates minds, when the party votes for its next leadership. With four people seeking the party’s chairmanship, it could be both contentious and a sign of which way wants to go in the future. Do they wish to try to reclaim territory lost, or veer hard left to satisfy its base?

The race to lead the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has become a debate about salvaging the party’s fortunes in a once-blue-leaning state that, in recent elections, has become steadily more red.

Party delegates will elect their next chairperson at the state Democratic Party convention in Middleton June 2-3.

They’ll either re-elect the current chairwoman, Martha Laning, or pick one of three challengers: Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy, Madison attorney Eric Finch or Joe Donovan, a retired small business owner from Crivitz.

Laning took over the party in 2015, when former Chairman Mike Tate announced he would be stepping down after six years in the role. While most of the recent defeats can be pinned on Laning, much of their genesis began during Tate’s tenure as chair.

But while November’s losses will be front and center about who gets blamed for them; where the party heads may all dwell on who backed who in the April 2016 Wisconsin’s presidential primary. Laning backed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while the other three backed socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Donovan, Finch and Kennedy all said they supported Sanders during last year’s primary.

Donovan has criticized Laning’s reversal on her superdelegate vote at last year’s Democratic National Convention. Laning said in 2015 that she would cast her superdelegate vote for whoever won the Wisconsin primary. Sanders won it by 13 points, but by that point Laning had shifted to say she would back the presumptive nominee, which turned out to be Clinton.

Political observers believe Kennedy, a former state president with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and congressional candidate, has the inside track. AFT is prominent in organized labor; a key Democratic constituency, and it could be enough to lock up the chairmanship.

Observers also see the race shaping up as a battle between two factions: The Clinton camp (Lanning) and the Sanders camp (the other three candidates). Sanders easily won the 2016 Wisconsin Democratic primary. Kennedy is among other former Sanders delegates who are involved with the “Our Wisconsin Revolution” effort:

Our Wisconsin Revolution is an independent, statewide, membership-driven, democratic-populist political organization that aims to take Wisconsin government back from corporate elites and make it of, by, and for the people.

So, what does the future for state Democrats look like for 2018? Do they offer solutions, or unrealistic proposals the state can’t afford (i.e. free college tuition)? Do they make efforts to understand the cultural issues and traditions which bind the rural communities they’ve lost touch with, or do they double-down on the identity politics which have been the party’s hallmark for years? Will the party defend the failings of ObamaCare, admit it has mistakes, or just outright demand a single-payer system the country can’t afford?

Do they embrace the budgetary reforms of Act 10, or do they do everything they can to undo them?

Yet, what will get the most headlines out of next month’s convention is what the party says and does against President Donald Trump. Will they take pot shots from the podium and call it a weekend, or will they do what they did in 2007 against former President George W. Bush and let their base’s rage lead to the passing of a resolution calling for his impeachment?

With many elected Wisconsin Democrats; along with recent headlines, doing all they can to discuss impeachment, it seems unlikely the delegates won’t be able to help themselves but cheer it on.

However what may not be discussed openly in Middleton is the lack of a bench of candidates proven, battle-tested, and able to run in races in 2018. Yes, rage against Donald Trump will bring in the recruits, but what’s to ensure they won’t reside in the extreme left? Even  as successful a year as 2010 was for Republicans, the party was helpless in stopping crackpots like Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell from winning primaries; or avoiding “purity purges” from a base fed up with incumbents unwilling or unable to do what they demand.

Not to mention, there’s still the void at the top of the ticket. Currently, more Democrats have said “No” to the possibility of running against Governor Walker than there are Republicans rumored to be saying “Yes” to running against Senator Tammy Baldwin. Yes, it’s early in the cycle, but it will remain a gaping hole in the party’s 2018 plans until they have at least one serious candidate.

While the upcoming Democratic Party of Wisconsin state convention will be viewed as how the party is moving towards the 2018 midterms, it will also be a showcase of something else. It will indicate just how divided the party is as they use the chairman’s fight for a proxy over its future direction. It will highlight how unwilling its base is to move past the results of the 2016 elections, and of course, it will be a reminder of just how political weak they currently are.