Perhaps no state embodied the unexpected strength of Democrats in 2022 more than Wisconsin.
The Badger State, a 50-50 battleground where four of the last six presidential elections have been decided by less than half a percentage point, is a microcosm of the national pattern in which midterms swing away from the president’s party. The last time a Democrat won a governor’s race in our state during a Democratic presidency was 60 years ago in 1962. Even when former President John F. Kennedy’s approval rating was approximately 70%, the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin won by only a single percentage point. Observers predicted that this pattern would hold in 2022. Instead, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) won by 3.4%; Attorney General Josh Kaul and Secretary of State Doug La Follette won statewide as well; Mandela Barnes came closer than any other Democrat in the country to defeating an incumbent Republican senator and Democrats thwarted the GOP’s attempt to seize supermajorities in the state Legislature.
How did this happen?
Many factors contributed — from the Dobbs backlash to the salience of democracy itself as a voting issue to the dynamism of the Democrats’ campaigns and the weaknesses of the GOP’s. But it’s critical to underscore one factor that helped turn each of those advantages into electoral success: a years-long commitment to building progressive infrastructure in Wisconsin, on both the independent side and within the state Democratic Party.
The Midwest has a slew of other formerly purple states in which the GOP swept the statewide elections. Indiana, Iowa and Ohio are all near neighbors where Democrats were highly competitive in recent decades. In each of those states, as in Wisconsin, the GOP has smashed unions, rigged maps and voting laws and done everything it could to lock in total control. Wisconsin, in fact, has the most extreme legislative partisan gerrymanders of any state in the nation. We also have the unfortunate distinction as the 47th hardest state in which to vote, as measured by the cost in time and money.
So how did we win? There are wonderful Democratic candidates, operatives and volunteers in each of the aforementioned states. But Wisconsin has an unusual advantage: a costly, but extraordinarily high-impact investment in building up organizing, communications and other election-winning operations in a way that has made come-from-behind victories possible.
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin (“WisDems”) launched a year-round neighbor-to-neighbor organizing program — patterned on former President Barack Obama’s successful campaign model — in the spring of 2017 and hasn’t stopped organizing since then. 2022 was the program’s sixth year and the impact of the sustained investment in the program was apparent in the numbers: 275 neighborhood action teams drove tens of thousands of volunteers to complete more than seven million voter contact attempts, in all corners and communities throughout Wisconsin. Over time, the WisDems program has expanded to include relational organizing and distributed virtual organizing as well as door-to-door canvassing, with specialized staff building relationships and partnerships in communities of color and rural areas around the state.
Organizing isn’t the party’s only year-round function. Since 2020, WisDems has run a nonstop voter protection operation as well, supporting voters and building relationships with local clerks around Wisconsin in local elections as well as the blockbuster November elections. With the resources to keep these programs running, they become more and more effective over time. Similarly, WisDems has run continuous digital, communications and political teams, all backed by operations, data and HR departments to ensure that the right people are doing the right work to reach the right voters with the right messages. For example, WisDems made six-figure investments in the spring and summer of 2022 in rural radio and media outlets serving Black, Latino and Hmong Wisconsinites, as well as other constituency-targeted communications efforts. By showing up early and not just in the final weeks before Election Day, we sought to puncture the popping-up-every-two-years transactional nature of too many political campaigns.
And it’s not just the state party: Wisconsin’s organizational infrastructure is also dynamite.
Dozens of organizations — from national groups to county, city or neighborhood-specific organizations — have done pathbreaking work in every corner of the state, often building year over year. Multi-cycle investments and a movement-wide commitment to building a culture that lifts up all communities have resulted in a progressive infrastructure in Wisconsin that is more than the sum of its parts, rather than fighting zero-sum battles for limited resources.
Investing long term works. It’s a practice that should happen more in other states as well. And in Wisconsin, it’s about to pay off again: On April 4, 2023, Wisconsinites will vote in a critical statewide Wisconsin Supreme Court election and for local seats on school boards, city councils, county boards and many other bodies.
This state Supreme Court race will determine the ideological majority of the court — and the rulings handed down by that court — for years to come. This could include rulings on the archaic pre-Civil War abortion ban, election laws and the hyper-partisan gerrymandered maps that many experts argue violate Wisconsin’s constitution. Particularly because of its likely rulings on election laws, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race is likely to shape the 2024 presidential election.
Normally, a nonpartisan spring election six months after a huge November election would be something of an afterthought. But in Wisconsin, the infrastructure that so many have patiently built for years will be running full steam. Long-term investment pays off — for the elections when everyone is watching, as in November’s, and even more for the enormously important races when nobody is paying attention.
As we celebrate the survival of democracy in 2022, let’s also recommit to the long-term fight in Wisconsin and states like it for 2023, 2024 and many years beyond.
Ben Wikler has served as chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin since 2019.
This piece is part of Democracy Docket’s How We Won series, which features op-eds from candidates and organizations that answer the question: How did you win in the 2022 midterm elections and what does this victory mean for democracy?