Wisconsin Midterms: Lackluster Incumbents Cling to Seats 

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Obama speaks at a campaign rally for Wisconsin Democrats leading up to the midterms, with Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

On Tuesday, November 8, Wisconsin Democratic Party Governor Tony Evers managed to hold on to his office by the skin of his teeth, narrowly defeating his far-right Republican challenger, Tim Michels, in the midterm elections. By contrast, Republican Party senator Ron Johnson won his campaign against the Democrats’ Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes by an even smaller margin. Both incumbents won their elections despite low approval ratings among their constituents, and despite neither offering working people any real solutions to the crises we face, such as spiraling inflation and a gun violence epidemic. Under these circumstances, with both thoroughly corporate candidates set to maintain their grip on their offices, workers in Wisconsin need a balance sheet of the election, and to decide where we go from here. 

The Bankruptcy of Corporate Politics

When Evers and Barnes were first elected Governor and Lt. Governor in 2018, many workers saw it as a much-needed reprieve from former Governor Scott Walker, who governed Wisconsin with a ruthless agenda against workers, reproductive rights, indigenous peoples, and the poor. In their campaigns they had promised to undo the damage Scott Walker had caused. The strategy of Evers and the Democratic Party was dependent on the widespread outrage over Walker’s blatant attacks on the Wisconsin working-class. Evers rode this wave to the governor’s seat instead of offering a bold challenge to Walker’s brutal attacks on Badgercare, public education, and unions. At best, Evers campaigned on half-measures such as “softening” the wildly unpopular Act 10 and raising the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, neither of which signaled a true departure from Walker’s reactionary policies which had taken a heavy toll on Wisconsinites.  

As it stands today, Evers has utterly failed to deliver on his core campaign promises. The minimum wage in Wisconsin is still a meager $7.25 an hour, universal background checks on gun sales have been abandoned, and Act 10 and “right to work” have no prospect of being repealed any time soon. For many working class people, Evers’ first term represented a step backwards. While it is true that the Republican-majority state legislature has played a part in preventing much needed changes from seeing the light of day, it’s not true that they are an insurmountable obstacle. 

In fact, just last month, Socialist Alternative spearheaded a campaign to make Dane County an abortion sanctuary, enshrining abortion protections in the county despite the draconian 1849 total ban on abortion and the GOP-dominated state legislature. This campaign was able to succeed because we channeled and built on the energy from the mass protests in Madison and all over the state following the Dobbs verdict. This movement was guided by a socialist feminist approach, regularly maintained through bottom-up democratically run action conferences, and independent from both corporate parties. From the beginning, the campaign had to face off against the Democrat-controlled county board and committees who attempted to heavily water down our legislation, but because we consistently applied the pressure of the movement to council meetings, the legislation that passed has real teeth and presents a tangible barrier to the enforcement of the abortion ban. 

The Democrats on the county board tried to paint our socialist feminist movement as a group of reckless radicals who were doing more harm than good, and consistently tried to water down the legislation with claims about not wanting to put limits on the sheriff’s office and the DA. Some Democrats even voted against the measure, saying that they “wanted to support it,” but in the end refusing to because it restrained the funding apparatus of the county by forbidding the use of county funds to prosecute the 1849 ban. Not only did these county board members try to water down the legislation to be nothing but empty words, but they fully demonstrated that they were unwilling to take on law enforcement. Our goal was to protect people in need of abortion from prosecution, meanwhile these Democrats were trying to protect prosecutors from the movement! While socialist feminists were utilizing movement-building tactics to get results, Evers called special sessions of the legislature to get the 1849 ban repealed, which Republicans promptly blocked. Evers’ response to right-wing overreach was more of a political stunt aimed at securing more campaign donations than a serious fight to win back rights that were lost. 

Evers and the Democratic Party have little interest in the power of mass movements and the working class. The Democratic Party is fundamentally a party of big business, and they would much prefer to let mass movements fizzle out, or to channel all that energy into “vote blue no matter who” campaigns. While many working people still look to the Democratic Party as a possible source of progressive change, the reality is that the entire party is beholden to their wealthy donors and the capitalist class, not those working people who come out to the polls for them. 

In the face of the failure of the Democratic Party to deliver on their campaign promises, Tim Michels and the Republican Party seized on the opportunity to pose as anti-establishment, and even pro-worker! Michels signaled support for paid parental leave, which is desperately needed for many workers starting families. While the Republicans, especially in Wisconsin, have a long and proven anti-worker history and have led the assault on the labor movement nationally, the total failure of the Evers administration had left such an incredible vacuum that the Republicans were able to campaign as the party of working families! 

Mandela Barnes himself was teed up for an easy victory against reviled Republican senator Ron Johnson, who in June had just a 37% approval rating. Ron Johnson was elected on the Tea Party wave a decade ago, and has fully adapted to Trumpism as it took over the Republican Party. Ron Johnson actively supported the overturning of Roe and supports the brutal 1849 abortion ban on Wisconsin state law. He co-sponsored legislation that prevented the EPA from imposing new rules on carbon emissions, and openly denies man-made climate change. He also has been a vocal proponent of the white supremacist “great replacement” theory. He has actively sabotaged every attempt to implement COVID-19 relief under the Biden administration. Working people were ready to reject Johnson in the strongest possible terms just a few months ago, for all this and more. And yet, somehow, he won his election against Mandela Barnes, a self-described progressive challenger. 

Democrats Led With Uninspiring, Out-Of-Touch Campaigns

While Johnson deserves to be removed from office for his support for attacks on women, queer people, immigrants, and workers, Barnes did not offer any path forward for those under attack. Johnson levied a series of racist attack ads at Barnes, claiming that he had connections to Vladimir Putin and “rationalized violence against American police officers” and made him out to be an anti-cop radical. Attack ads against Barnes also waged a racist attack on the Black Lives Matter and Justice for George Floyd movement of 2020 where more than 20 million people took to the streets to protest police brutality. Specifically, the ads demonized the movements’ central demand of defunding the police and linked Barnes to the demand.

Instead of addressing these racist attacks head-on and pointing out the need to cut bloated police budgets and redirect funds back into communities that are most affected by overpolicing in the form of fully funding education, social housing, and healthcare, Barnes rushed to distance himself from the movement and trumpet his own “law and order” credentials. His campaign took out a series of ads claiming he never supported defunding the police. Similarly, despite Barnes indicating support for the demand to abolish ICE during the Trump years via social media, just a few weeks ago he took out an ad where he himself stated: “look, we knew the other side would make up lies about me to scare you. Now they’re claiming I want to defund the police and abolish ICE. That’s a lie.” Barnes spent over $3.1 million on this ad, according to AdImpact, all to not only claim that he was not on the side of immigrants and communities affected by over-policing, but to claim that he never was on their side in the first place. This is part of a nationwide pushback by Democrats against Black Lives Matter, which feeds the far-right rhetoric of Republicans like Johnson.

Governor Evers likewise ran his campaign in lockstep with the Democratic Party by attempting to gaslight workers about the current economic crisis. Evers, like Joe Biden, paints a rose-tinted picture of a booming economy, low unemployment rates, and a budget surplus, all the while failing to acknowledge or provide solutions to the record high inflation caused by excessive corporate profits that ballooned gas prices, grocery prices, rent and other necessities that Wisconsinites and feeling the brunt of.

Faced with the threat of right-wing obstruction, Evers’ strategy was largely to campaign on the power of his veto pen; instead of offering the working class something concrete, he simply promised to curb the worst of the right-wing attacks. With such uninspiring messaging, it’s almost amazing he won at all. In his campaign speech to a group of Teamsters in Madison, he parroted the Biden administration in claiming that the economy is strong, despite workers needing multiple jobs just to survive. But the power of the veto pen alone won’t solve the crises thrust upon the working class by capitalism, and it won’t stop the growth of the far-right. 

Evers also populated the media with ads painting Tim Michels as “too radical for Wisconsin” on issues such as abortion. It is certainly true that Michels has a right-wing agenda when it comes to reproductive rights, and had committed to stopping any attempts to repeal the 1849 ban, but the reality is that the Evers campaign once again failed to offer anything positive to working people, instead choosing to actively center its strategy on being the lesser of two evils. This “lesser evilism” rhetoric is nothing new, and is used by the Democratic Party in every election to attempt to justify why working class people should vote for politicians who are beholden to their corporate donors and offering nothing concrete for those of us who are barely getting by. 

Toward a New Party for the Working Class

The plethora of crises facing working people are not going to be fixed by voting blue every two years. We need our own party. Such a party would be an avenue for workers to run their own candidates for office with campaigns rejecting corporate cash of course, as well as to ensure accountability by demanding our representatives take only the average workers’ wage. This new party would need to play an active role in the labor movement by building rank and file power to fight back against both the bosses and conservative union leadership, and also take an active role in social movements like the movements against sexism and racism that have cropped up in recent years. 

In 2018, voters had become fed up with Scott Walker and the pervasiveness of Trumpism. The votes Evers and Barnes received were actually less about enthusiasm for their campaign and more of a desire to kick Scott Walker out. Instead of seeing this as a failure, the Evers campaign was willing to say “good enough” and planned to campaign as the lesser of two evils in 2022 and set his sights on “boring wins.” Going forward, workers need much better than just a “less bad” or “boring” option. Demands around Medicare for all, free, safe, and legal abortion, increasing the minimum wage, and taxing the rich to fund our communities have immense popularity among working people. We don’t need to settle for the short end of the stick every 2 years; we can and must build a movement that will allow us to fight back and win.