After what happened in Wisconsin in 2016, you can bet the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates won’t forget about the Badger state in 2020. Donald Trump’s narrow victory here played a key role in his stunning victory, and most political observers believe the president will need to win Wisconsin again to secure a second term.
But if what’s past is prologue, Democrats might want to remember not just what happened in Wisconsin in 2016, but what happened two years later, when Democrat Tony Evers defeated Republican Governor Scott Walker in a race that was decided by fewer than 30,000 votes. Let me explain.
There are now—as I write this—23 Democratic candidates for president. That doesn’t include those who thought about running but didn’t, or those who are still contemplating a bid for the White House.
The sheer size of the Democratic field has been the subject of much discussion. The obvious comparison is to the 2016 Republican presidential primary, which featured so many candidates that debate nights were twofers, an undercard followed by the main event.
But the Republican primary also featured an outspoken, unconventional, unapologetic, larger than life personality—Donald Trump—who dominated news cycles in a way we haven’t seen in modern politics.
That kind of candidate doesn’t seem to exist among the current Democratic field. So let me offer a different analogy and compare what’s happening in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to something closer to home: the 2018 race for governor in Wisconsin.
Let’s begin with the obvious. There was no shortage of Democratic candidates in the race for governor. In the months leading up to the election, 16 Democrats announced they were running. Six eventually dropped out before the primary, including the first candidate to announce. You get bonus points if you remember Bob Harlow.
Just as there is in the current presidential cycle, there was much gnashing of teeth over what the size of the field meant. Would it be hard for the Democratic candidates to connect with voters, who might be overwhelmed by the sheer number of candidates from which to choose? Would the primary battle end up wounding the eventual winner? Would a fractious primary cause supporters of some Democratic candidates to stay home in November?
In the end, the Democrats worst fears about the impact of a crowded primary never materialized. Helped by record turnout for an off-year November election, the party’s eventual nominee, Evers, scored a narrow victory over Walker, the two-term Republican incumbent.
But there may be other lessons to be learned from what happened in Wisconsin in 2018.
First, by choosing Evers, Wisconsin voters went with a more traditional, conventional candidate, someone they knew well, a state schools superintendent who had run three successful statewide campaigns for office since 2009. Evers’ primary opponents included former state lawmaker and businesswoman Kelda Roys, who appealed to some in the progressive wing of the party. The head of the state firefighters’ union, Mahlon Mitchell, won Milwaukee County. But In an increasingly polarized political environment, Evers had the broadest appeal among Wisconsin voters looking for change, including those who identified as independents. A 67-year-old cancer survivor, Evers wasn’t flashy. He wasn’t known for his fiery speeches. Instead, he said he would try to heal the state’s gaping political divide. Evers’ running mate, former state representative Mandela Barnes—an African American millennial from Milwaukee—added a generational appeal to the ticket.
Second, Evers almost certainly benefitted from being the best-known candidate in the crowded primary contest. Much as former Vice President Joe Biden has dominated early polling in the Democratic presidential race, Evers was the front runner in the Democratic primary for governor. He led early in the polls and never looked back. He won handily on primary election day.
Third, there was a renewed effort to reach out to what are sometimes referred to as “low propensity” voters, both young people and working-class people of color. Specifically, wealthy California businessman Tom Steyer’s NextGen America engaged students on college campuses around the state. Groups such as BLOC—Black Leaders Organizing Communities—and MASH—Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality workers—went door to door in Milwaukee neighborhoods, connecting with voters who stayed home in the 2016 presidential election. If turnout was the story of Hillary Clinton’s loss in Wisconsin in 2016, it was also the story of Tony Evers’ victory in 2018.
Fourth, part of the Democrats’ success in Wisconsin was due to a remarkable and somewhat surprising decision to refrain from attacking each other during the primary campaign. Evers finished the primary season with not only a solid victory, but with very few dings from his fellow Democratic candidates. That decision likely hurt Evers’ primary opponents. By not going negative, they were unable to bring Evers back to the pack. But the lack of criticism also meant Evers was able to start the fall campaign with few visible wounds from a protracted primary battle.
Fifth, Evers made health care a key point of differentiation in the race. In a Marquette University Law School poll shortly before the election, 43 percent of voters said health care was the first or second most important issue facing Wisconsin, even more important than the economy.
Under Governor Walker, the state had joined a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. But the Republican legislature had been unable to pass legislation that would have protected individuals with pre-existing conditions should Obamacare be struck down. Walker claimed that individuals would not be left unprotected, but Evers said thousands of people could lose their coverage and he promised to withdraw Wisconsin from the lawsuit if elected. Former Walker campaign aides have conceded that the attack was effective and may have ultimately helped decide a close election.
Of course, gubernatorial elections and presidential elections are different political animals. The 2020 presidential campaign will write its own story and is likely to feature a more contentious Democratic primary as well as an incumbent whose combative style is much different than Scott Walker’s. Wisconsin also is not necessarily representative of the country. For example, we’re older and less diverse than some states.
But for Democrats looking ahead to 2020, what happened in Wisconsin in 2018 is worth remembering for the decisions that were made; who Democrats ultimately chose as their candidates for governor and lieutenant governor; their renewed focus on individuals less likely to vote; their reluctance to attack each other in a crowded primary; and their use of health care as a powerful political weapon that resonated with voters. In short, the Wisconsin experience of 2018 may not be predictive, but it is instructive.