Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had his brown bag. Democratic candidate Mike McCabe has his blue jeans.
And just as Walker wasn't the first Republican candidate to emphasize his frugality with a brown bag fundraising gimmick, McCabe wouldn't be the first Midwestern Democrat to promise to govern in denim.
"I think a governor should be a servant and not a master — and to me that puts a governor under the people, not above them," McCabe said in an interview. "So that’s a big part of the motivation for not only campaigning in blue jeans, but if elected, I will be inaugurated in blue jeans and I will govern in blue jeans."
McCabe's "blue jean" decree comes about 140 years after the election of Indiana Gov. James D. Williams — better known as "Blue Jeans Bill," a nickname he earned and embraced during his time in Congress before his 1876 gubernatorial campaign. Williams wore blue jeans to work for three decades as a state legislator, and had two "blue jeans" suits made to wear in Washington, D.C., according to the Indiana Magazine of History.
McCabe says the many similarities between his persona and "Blue Jeans" Williams are coincidental.
Williams, a Democrat, was the first farmer to serve as governor of Indiana. McCabe's affinity for blue jeans stems from a farm background, too — he grew up on a farm in rural Clark County, near Curtiss, and launched his gubernatorial campaign there last month.
The former head of the campaign finance watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, McCabe founded the nonprofit group Blue Jean Nation in 2015 with the goal of restructuring the priorities of the country's political parties. The group launched a year after McCabe published his book reflecting on the failures of the political system, "Blue Jeans in High Places."
"I suppose if I grew up wearing khakis then I would’ve called it Khaki Nation, but I mean, I’m farm-raised. I grew up on a farm. I grew up wearing blue jeans. I’ve worn blue jeans my whole life," McCabe, 56, said when asked to explain the blue jeans ethos. "I actually have never owned a matching suit where the coat and the pants are made of the same material. I’ve never even rented one. I didn’t wear a suit for my own wedding. My wife and I dressed casually when we were married.
"So it’s just who I am. You know, I would feel like a phony if I now bought a matching suit and put on that costume and tried to pass myself off as somebody who’s fancier than I really am."
The similarities, it turns out, don't end there.
Williams was serving in the House of Representatives when his party nominated him as a candidate for governor, a campaign he opted to pursue. McCabe's candidacy was first floated this spring when a group of 190 people published a letter urging him to run.
According to the Indiana Magazine of History, Williams' gubernatorial campaign "made a thorough canvass of the rural portions of the state, but did not often appear in the larger cities; his special strength was to be found among the farmers." On the campaign trail, reporters noted the contrast between his blue jeans and the "Broadway fashion" of Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison.
McCabe is making an effort in his own campaign to focus on what he calls the "forgotten places" of Wisconsin — smaller communities he says Democrats have ignored in favor of larger cities where fundraisers are held.
Williams was eulogized in the Indianapolis Star as a "Great Hoosier Commoner" and memorialized in the book, "Jokelore: Humorous Folktales from Indiana" under the header, "'Blue Jeans' Williams, the Commoner."
The commoner is an integral part of McCabe's campaign, and before that, of the Blue Jean Nation mission — "commoners working to house the politically homeless and transform parties that are failing America." His campaign committee is registered as "Commoners for Mike McCabe."
The real divide in American politics, McCabe argues, is not between liberals and conservatives or the left and the right — "it's who's on top and who's on bottom."
"It’s the way we’ve been divided into royals and commoners," McCabe said, adding that the "single biggest issue" American society faces is inequality.
Asked about the "Blue Jeans" Williams parallels, McCabe said he had no idea about the Indiana governor until he searched the internet this spring to see if "governorbluejeans.com" was available as a URL for his campaign website.
"Obviously for me, this goes back way before I was checking to see whether governorbluejeans.com was a domain name I could take — and that’s where I learned about the political figure from Indiana dating back to the 19th century," McCabe said. "But I wrote that book, 'Blue Jeans in High Places,' and then out of that group grew Blue Jean Nation. So this has been a theme of my efforts as a citizen for some time now. But yeah, I saw it when I was just checking to see whether governorbluejeans.com might be available — which, it was fascinating for me to see that, because I had no idea."
Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said in a statement it is "no surprise that McCabe's entire political persona is nothing more than a recycled gimmick from a history book."
"Phony Mike McCabe has already shown Wisconsinites they can't trust him after taking money from left-wing radicals like George Soros despite claiming to be against money in politics, why would the rest of his brand be any less phony?" Zimmerman said.
During his two years with Blue Jean Nation, McCabe said, he's urged people to get involved in politics and even to run for office. He said he never saw his own life taking that direction, but in the last year he started to reconsider his political role.
The other Democratic candidates in the field — Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, Eau Claire state Rep. Dana Wachs, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and Alma state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout — "seem at peace with the political culture as it is," McCabe said.
"We need people who are not professional politicians and who are not career office holders and who never saw themselves in the role of candidate for office or elected official to enter the arena and take on that role," he said.
A significant difference between the two "blue jeans" candidates is their political histories. While Williams was a Democrat who held public offices for several decades, McCabe is proudly not a member of, or associated with, a political party — but he's running in the Democratic primary.
McCabe ran as a Democrat once before, against now-Congressman Mark Pocan for the state Assembly in 1998, but also worked for three Republican legislators. The Blue Jean Nation mantra — "neither elephant nor ass" — has been put on t-shirts and set to music by Madison musician Peter Leidy in a parody of Neil Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans."
That he eschews the Democratic Party label and has spent his career doling out criticism to both parties has led some Democrats to bristle at his candidacy. And the Republican Party of Wisconsin has called him a "phony" who would "continue to mislead Wisconsinites and take our state backward."
McCabe described reception from Democratic "state establishment figures" as "chilly," but argued voters are growing increasingly disillusioned with the two major parties.
He invoked Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran as a Democrat in the 2016 presidential primary, arguing he chose the path that would allow him to make the biggest difference. Had Sanders not run as a Democrat, McCabe argued, he likely would have fared about as well as Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who earned 1 percent of the popular vote.
McCabe also said he's not looking to start a third party, despite encouraging his supporters to put themselves on the ballot and "Run on Mike."
"You have to also work within the two party system to try to bring about change," he said. "If there was a clear path to the emergence of a third party or strong independent movement, I think people should take that path. But right now the conditions just aren’t right."