A nasty internecine war has erupted inside the Democratic Party over choosing a replacement for retiring chair Mike Tate. As a result, when the party elects Tate’s successor on June 6, Democrats will have to focus on honing and effectively articulating their message.
The victorious candidate can’t afford to be hobbled by the lingering hostilities. He or she will have more than enough challenges already. Foremost, the next chair faces low morale following successive defeats since 2010. Except for the 2012 Wisconsin victories of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and President Barack Obama, Democrats have repeatedly lost big in the state.
The state’s Democratic leaders shirk blame, pinning the losses on gerrymandered districts. Yes, the political map has been rigged to favor Republicans, and it’s going to remain that way for five more years — and beyond, unless Democrats succeed in regaining one house of the Legislature. But Democrats’ constant complaints about the unfairness of it all only serve to make the base feel permanently defeated. Why bother going to the polls?
Democrats also are discouraging young and minority voters by failing to convince those constituencies that the party has the will and ability to address their most pressing issues. WisDems are failing to make a place for them at the table, whether it’s in delegate selection or in leadership roles. The party asks for their votes, but besides College Democrats of America, there’s no successful outreach to potential youth supporters. If you want to see just how ossified and white the party has become, attend the next meeting of the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County.
The next WisDem’s chair must focus on laying out a positive vision of the future and selling it proudly to the electorate. It should not be hard. In the last election, non-binding referenda promoting Democratic policies overwhelmingly won at the polls, even while Democrats lost. There were plenty of voters at the polls who agreed with Democrats. They just didn’t know it.
Democratic leadership in Wisconsin must restore power to its grassroots instead of operating in top-down fashion, a style that’s horribly out of synch with the progressive agenda. The perception that the party’s chiefs are rigging the selection process for a new chair is causing rifts today that could cost dearly in next year’s election.
You can’t rally people by disempowering them. Candidates can’t inspire voters by smearing the opposition or, worse, not standing up forcefully for their positions. Regardless of what consultants say, leaders have to sell their policies — not try to bury them beneath ambiguities.
Finally, the party’s next chair should forget the idea that Democrats can only win by getting strong turnout in Milwaukee and Madison. That strategy does nothing to help pick up state Senate or Assembly seats. The party must energize voters throughout the state, not just in Democratic bastions.
Wisconsinites generally want the same things — more and better jobs, an excellent and accessible education system, a clean environment, affordable health care and confidence that their tax dollars are being spent shrewdly. If Democrats can fulfill those goals, then they need to explain how, and they need to do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year between now and November 2016.