Paul Maslin, the nationally respected Democratic pollster and campaign strategist, will be working this year on behalf of Paul Soglin and likely Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin’s big statewide elections this year.
Just last month, Maslin helped shake up national politics by working to elect Doug Jones as a U.S. senator from Alabama.
That election marked the stunning defeat of Republican Roy Moore, the arch-conservative former judge and alleged pursuer of teenage girls. Maslin’s strategic approach in that campaign was encapsulated in his television ad about — of all things — the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. Maslin, who splits time between Madison and his California office, grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, less than an hour from Gettysburg. He told me in an interview that he dreamed up the ad late one Saturday night.
In the one-minute spot, candidate Jones earnestly told the story of Gettysburg’s Little Round Top battlefield, where Confederate Col. William Oates of Alabama faced Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain of Maine.
“Those times have passed long ago and our country is better for it,” Jones told Alabama viewers. “But now we fight too often over other matters. It seems as if we’re coming apart. I want to go to Washington and meet the representatives from Maine and those from every other state, not on the battlefield, but to find common ground. Because there’s honor in compromise and civility, to pull together as a people, and to get things done for Alabama.”
Maslin, interviewed recently by the Washington Post while attending Jones’ swearing-in, said the path to other Democratic victories is to run against the “chaos” and “inaction” of Trump-era politics.
“That was our calling card,” Maslin said. “When we talked about health care and education, we did it through that context and lens: Why can’t we work together to get something done? Why can’t people work together to improve our schools? Democrats can stick to the issues that matter most to them and then make a larger point about getting along and civility.”
Now, about Wisconsin.
Maslin told me that Baldwin’s re-election to the U.S. Senate and depriving Republican Gov. Scott Walker of a third term will hinge on the ability of the Democratic candidates to shepherd in an era of civility and assure voters that they are sincerely invested in the best public policy outcomes, even if they are ideologically imperfect ones. (I spoke with several other respected left-leaning operatives this week who said similar things.)
That strategy would mark a 180-degree pivot from Donald Trump and Walker, who both regard compromise as weakness, politics as war.
Maslin worked on behalf of Baldwin in 2012 through independent expenditures and said he is likely to play that role again. He is also doing polling and strategy for Soglin, the longtime Madison mayor who made his campaign for governor official this week.
“Voters right now are fed up with a lot, but they’re fed up more than anything else with the fighting, with the chaos, with the sense that somehow they’ve been dealt out of this equation,” Maslin told me.
He acknowledged that some of that feeling existed before Walker was first elected in 2010 and Trump in 2016. “There was a fair amount of resentment and a sense that ‘nobody gives a damn about us and we’ve been left behind here,’ particularly in places like northern Wisconsin, so they were willing to try anything and they did,” he said.
But Trump has unleashed an underestimated backlash, Maslin said. “I laugh at everybody who is still talking about the Trump base; the Trump base is 37 or 38 percent. Last time I checked you don’t win elections with 37 or 38 percent. And since that election those very voters that made the difference for him … have now moved.”
Maslin added, “In the broadest sense, (voters) are looking for people now who can actually produce results, who can actually say something that seems genuine about where we are as a country, where we might be going, that seem to be legitimately concerned about their welfare and seem to be able to step out of the typical political trap that we’re in.”
Baldwin, Maslin said, is sometimes underestimated, but authentically connects with people and real concerns. As in 2012, he predicted that “they are going to say liberal, lesbian, Madison, the whole deal, member of Congress, Washington, all that stuff.”
Other political experts worry about an avalanche of negative television ads targeting Baldwin, especially in Milwaukee, purchased with far-right, out-of-state money. But Maslin is more sanguine, casting Baldwin as an authentic Wisconsin fighter.
So, what does Maslin think Democratic voters seek in a gubernatorial nominee?
“The first thing they’re looking for is this: ‘Give me some genuine reason why I believe that you’re standing up against what we feel is under threat right now’ — that’s partly Walker and partly Trump. ‘I want someone who is going to reflect real progressive ideals and a real ability to counter whatever they are doing.’ That’s job one.
“Job two, here I do have my Soglin hat on … I think there is a premium on somebody who can claim that there’s a better way and can show (previous) results,” Maslin said.
Moreover, he added, Walker is not quite the intimidating candidate he once was.
First, Walker has “got to counter this wave coming where he is now being viewed through the lens of Trump,” Maslin said, explaining that Walker vacillates on aligning with the president.
Second is the notion of a third term. “I think people are much more skeptical now about just automatically saying to somebody, ‘You had eight years, we’ll give you four more,’ ” Maslin said. “Why? What’s the rationale?”
Third, Maslin said Walker was damaged by his failed presidential run evidenced by approval ratings consistently below 50 percent. “You start to say to yourself, this is a guy who sort of showed us that his political ambition is what mattered more than anything, now came back with his tail between his legs, he’s not the same guy. I’m going to judge him differently now.”
Maslin concluded: “Now the question is can we Democrats find somebody — and it could be Soglin or it could be somebody else — but whoever it is, has to get on the level of Walker and say, ‘You know, let’s talk the facts of what you’ve done or haven’t done. What is the real impact of your policies on the middle class? What is the real impact on infrastructure and roads? What is the true impact of your policies and Trump’s on health care? What is the true economic story of Wisconsin?’”
Listening to Maslin, my guess is that beleaguered Wisconsin progressives would love to believe him. Remember, the guy did help win an Alabama election by invoking among the most bitter of southern memories — the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg.
Me, I trust his numbers — and his instincts.