Amid Dissent, Wisconsin Democrats Demonstrate Unity

Stringer/Sputnik via AP

Former presidential nominee, Senator Bernie Sanders at the national convention of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia. 

At some of his speeches in Philadelphia, Bernie Sanders has been met with boos when calling on his supporters to rally behind Hillary Clinton. But at a Tuesday breakfast before the Wisconsin delegation, erstwhile Sanders supporters gave him a standing ovation.

The display of unity was all the more striking because Sanders won the Wisconsin primary in April by more than 10 percentage points, and brought nearly 50 delegates from the state with him to Philadelphia. At a state delegation breakfast Tuesday morning to thank his Wisconsin supporters, Sanders reiterated his call for Democrats to vote for Clinton and defeat Donald Trump in the general election.

“We’ve got to elect Secretary Clinton,” Sanders declared. “And we’ve got to stay focused and force every level of government to focus on working people’s issues.”

Sanders called on his Wisconsin supporters to think big, not small, and explained his vision to transform his campaign into a political vehicle that elects candidates to everything from the local school board to statewide office. In response, delegates rose to their feet and chanted, “Thank you, Bernie” as he left.  

Afterward, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin told reporters that Sanders is beginning to drive his message home. “While we have big battles, big contests in primaries, ultimately we have to pull together in order to make progress,” said Baldwin. “That’s the point he made. I think people are hearing that. There will be some detractors, of course, but I think that’s coming together.”

Wisconsin Democrats are in a weak political position in 2016. The state legislature is controlled by Republicans, and Republican Governor Scott Walker has imposed a draconian conservative agenda on the state that includes drastic cuts to education funding, rollbacks of election and campaign-finance laws, and assaults on the state’s labor movement. Republicans hold five of Wisconsin’s eight seats in the House of Representatives, and occupy one of its two Senate seats.

While Wisconsin Democrats are presenting a largely united front at the convention, their big challenge will begin the day they go home: convincing both Sanders supporters and white working class voters now being courted by Trump to both rally behind Clinton, and help give her a Democratic majority in the Senate by re-electing former Senator Russ Feingold, who is running to recapture the seat he lost in 2010.

The state’s unions—repeatedly under attack by Walker and state Republicans—are pouring unprecedented resources into the 2016 election as they set out to convince white working class voters that Feingold deserves a second chance, and that Trump is not the answer.

As is the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

“We have the biggest ground game that we’ve had at this point in a presidential election, and I plan on carrying that all the way through next year so that we keep building on that grassroots organization,” Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Martha Laning told the Prospect.

Progressive activists have also started to pivot from rallying behind Sanders to harnessing the energy behind his primary contest as an organizing vehicle for the general election. Spearheading that effort is Wisconsin’s Working Families Party, a progressive third party that has become a growing political force in the Northeast. That party has often leveraged power by working within the confines of Democratic politics.

“I, along with entirety of the Wisconsin Sanders delegation, [am] disappointed and frustrated that Bernie is not nominee, but we would not be in [the] spirit of his political revolution if we said this convention is the end,” Peter Rickman, who is the leader of the state’s Sanders delegates and co-chair of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, told the Prospect. “What we heard was a stirring call to deepen, broaden, and build the political revolution. His vision runs through defeating Donald Trump, and electing Hillary Clinton.”

As Rickman explains, Sanders’s primary win in Wisconsin was built on the votes of white working class and Millennial voters. The next step, he says, is convincing those Sanders supporters that electing Clinton, along with a Democratic Senate, is key to organizing progressive populists over the long term. After that, the goal will be to re-elect Baldwin and defeat Walker in 2018, says Rickman.

“If we can continue to consolidate and grow this base of Democratic Bernie supporters, that will be the basis to win statewide elections,” Rickman says. From there, he argues, the focus can shift to winning big at the state level in 2020, which would allow Democrats to reverse the redistricting that has given Republicans control over the state legislature.

It’s something of a test case for whether progressive groups can successfully work within the Democratic Party post-Bernie in the near term, and whether they can build a lasting power center to advance their progressive goals over the long term.

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