Wisconsinites head to the polls tomorrow for recall elections in six state senate districts. These elections (and two next week) will determine whether Governor Scott Walker will retain a Republican state senate majority, and will also gauge the likelihood that he'll face his own ouster in January. They'll also provide a rare test case for a brand of populist, anti-corporate campaigning that activists often call for but many Democrats shy away from. These Democrats are using a class-based message in six districts red enough to have elected Republican state senators on the same day Barack Obama was elected president.
In the 2008 election cycle, candidates campaigned on who planned to lower taxes the most. Three years later, a victor from that year, state Senator Alberta Darling, is seeing her opponent, Sandy Pasch, argue against lowering taxes. Pasch's ads accuse Darling of "cutting education and health care to give tax breaks to big corporations" and "supporting the end of Medicare as we know it while giving the richest a massive tax cut."
Pasch's fellow Democratic challengers are taking a similar tack against their opponents: "Dan Kapanke gave tax breaks to the rich and big corporations while raising middle-class taxes" (Jennifer Shilling); "Politicians like Randy Hopper have been fighting for wealthy people like himself" (Jessica King). "I see the very basic things that allow people just to eke out a life being taken away at the same time I see the wealthiest wealthy people being benefited," Democratic challenger Nancy Nussbaum told the local Post-Crescent last week.
Progressive groups are driving home the same message -- that incumbent Republicans are siding with the wealthy against working people. One ad from We Are Wisconsin (WAW), the largest coalition of labor and other progressive groups working the recalls, shows nurses, firefighters, and teachers putting money into a jar and then rich people in suits and gowns pocketing the cash. Another shows an actor in a suit playing Alberta Darling as she turns her back on a middle-class couple and an elderly woman. A child reaches out to get Darling's attention as Darling taps away on her smart phone, and Darling yanks her arm away and walks off.
The same populist message is being used in phone calls and door-to-door canvassing. WAW spokesperson Kelly Steele says that the coalition's message to voters has been about "this war that Scott Walker started in February when he unabashedly attacked working families in this state" and that the Republicans' agenda "is being driven by these powerful corporate-backed interests." Last week, the WAW announced it had knocked on more than 300,000 doors and made more than 700,000 phone calls.
SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin Vice President Bruce Colburn says that whereas in most elections Democrats "try to abstain" from "class warfare" rhetoric, right now in Wisconsin "both sides see this in those terms."
It's not unusual to see Democrats dabble in populism, but they don't often go full-throttle. Too much rhetoric dividing the rich from everyone else, we're told, will alienate the majority of Americans who want to become rich themselves. Conservatives are quick to insist we focus on how to grow the pie for everyone, yet right-wingers have shown themselves all too savvy at stoking class resentments. The anti-elite rhetoric of the Tea Party is the latest example of a long tradition that includes attacks on "elitist" judges for imposing a gay agenda on an unwilling populace and on unions for sustaining benefits most Americans are denied. When We Are Wisconsin aired an ad with students decrying Darling's support for Walker's education cuts, Darling fired back with a press release charging that one of them was a well-heeled "Daughter of [a] Union Boss." Conservatives may chide Democrats that people aspiring for better lives will be turned off by class rhetoric -- but conservative successes suggest otherwise.
Democracy for America spokesperson Levana Layendecker credits the Tea Party's ascendance to "a populist message" about "government bought out by corporate interests -- and I agree with them." She and other activists expressed excitement about the chance to take a clear, class-conscious message to voters in red districts and to send a message not just to austerity-happy Republicans but to national Democrats as well.
"If we can pull this off," says Democracy Addicts' Knutson, "we have a blueprint that can be adapted to other situations." He says Wisconsin Democratic politicians this year "have very publicly come out on the side of people and against the corporate interest, and I don't think people looking at D.C. Democrats see the same thing."
Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, says the left is using "the kind of message you haven't seen much in past decades." She predicts that tomorrow's results "will determine how we do these kinds of populist messages in other states across the country."
Several factors have brought us to this moment in Wisconsin: recall laws, a persistently poor economy, a unified and emboldened right-wing state government, an unprecedented protest movement, and the willingness of progressive activists and Democrats to make common cause. Tomorrow, if Democrats take back the three seats necessary (along with defending two of their own incumbents against recall next week) to flip the Wisconsin Senate, it will be a victory for a movement and a party but also for a way of approaching other citizens and doing progressive politics.