The Dems’ Bunker Mentality

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin is insular, and that bunker mentality is a serious long-term problem for them as they try and fail repeatedly to compete statewide, from Nekoosa to inner city Milwaukee.

Like Mary Burke, Tom Barrett, and Democratic gubernatorial challengers going back a half century, nearly all of the Dems’ statewide prospects are plucked from Madison and Milwaukee. Milwaukee radio host Mark Belling discussed this phenomenon last week. In a blue state that’s voted for the Democrat presidential candidate every time since 1984’s Reagan landslide, the success of the Republicans in statewide elections is remarkable.

But it’s not just their candidates. The DPW and its people are of Madison/Milwaukee – it runs in their veins and it’s in their DNA. Their staffers and decision makers are forged in the fire of Madison/Milwaukee extremism, which showed through when Senate Dems fled the state, invaded the capitol with busloads of imported mobs, overly eager protesters dressed as zombies protested Walker at a Special Olympics ceremony, or wild-eyed radicals assailed elderly attendees at a Republican fundraiser at a private home. I wrote about the latter incident last year after one of the perpetrators got hired by Burke to run her grassroots operation: “…maybe a wild-eyed, frenetic, overcaffeinated union organizer hitting doors in suburban Green Bay is just what the Burke campaign needs.” Zellner joins disgraced former DPW spokesman Graeme Zielinski as excellent examples of why Democrats no longer appeal to mainstream independent Wisconsinites, who Nik describes aptly as moralistic and inconsistent voters.

The throng of kooks do not appeal to commonsense people who live in places like the Fox Valley. I envisioned a wacked out Madison freak knocking on doors in Green Bay last December; likewise, Belling uses that region as an example in laying out his theory that Democrats who are pickled in Madison/Milwaukee radicalism have little appeal in blue collar, working class places like Green Bay and Appleton. To that I would add most places in west-central and even northern Wisconsin, where screaming in someone’s face is not seen as a “beautiful display of democracy.”

The story of the race for the 17th Senate district is the Dems’ bunker mentality in a bottle. Not satisfied with the bench available to them in the seat being vacated by Dale Schultz, Madison Democrats recruited Madison law student Pat Bomhack who grew up in the Milwaukee area and had moved to Spring Green with the purpose of running for their offices. The bench, Ernie Wittwer, got up and left the game and took most of the bleachers with him. Bomhack won the primary with help from Madison Democrats, but lost to Republican Howard Marklein by a larger margin than anyone expected.

The Madison-lite candidate imported by the Dems lost because he wasn’t in touch with the district he was plopped into, mirroring the failures of Madison lefty Mary Burke and failed Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett to win broad appeal.

Oh, but what about Tammy Baldwin, you ask? Baldwin of Madison defeated Tommy Thompson of Elroy, but that doesn’t negate my point, it reinforces it. Democrats are stronger statewide when there’s a strong national trend like a presidential election, bolstering the turnout of butt-scratcher voters in the Dem bunkertowns, particularly Milwaukee. Republicans are certainly helped by national trends but GOP victories are not relegated to wave years, as Tommy Thompson’s victories showed. Walker won the recall in the same year Baldwin beat Thompson. JB Van Hollen won the AG’s office in ’06, a Dem tidal wave.

Further, the Democrats hemorrhaged even more state legislative seats this cycle. As an example, the 17th Senate should’ve been winnable but the strategy of Chris Larson (of Milwaukee) failed. I predicted he’d lose his job and he did. These trends should all continue in some upcoming statewide elections.

Sen. Johnson could face a tough battle in 2016 either from former Sen. Russ Feingold or Congressman Ron Kind of La Crosse. Feingold, who grew up next door to Madison and now teaches in Milwaukee at Marquette University, would be the next Tom Barrett, pulled out of the bunker and dusted off. Kind, however, would be a change of course for the Dems; a relative moderate in not just substance but style, he could build strong appeal in places like the Fox Valley and Northern Wisconsin, where Walker just got done winning handily. These two are really the only Democrats who could topple Johnson – a remarkable fact in a blue state.

Conversely, Sen. Baldwin faces an off-year challenge in 2018 from one of many excellent potential Republican opponents, chief among them Rep. Sean Duffy. That race would be tough for the far-left Madisonite, who has bent over backwards to lay low in the Senate. Duffy can appeal in places where Baldwin’s pedigree fails to connect.

Finally, there’s Jennifer Shilling. The state Senator from La Crosse who came to her position in the bloody recall of Dan Kapanke, Shilling’s been chosen to lead the Senate’s Democrat caucus. While she’s from outside the bunker, Shilling has subscribed to the Madison approach of wearing the orange shirts, fist-pumping while yelling shame, fleeing the state, and looking on quietly with anticipation as roofing nails were poured onto Kapanke’s driveway.

It’s a question whether the Democrats will start learning from their past mistakes and elevating grassroots Dems from all around the state rather than just Madison and Milwaukee. However, the fact that someone like Shilling is their new minority leader speaks volumes about the toll that years of Bomhacking has taken on their bench. Is she being groomed for a gubernatorial run, or maybe to take over Kind’s seat should he run against Johnson?

Stay tuned.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.