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Paul Fanlund: Get used to life at the epicenter of national politics

Paul Fanlund: Get used to life at the epicenter of national politics

Tom Perez and Jessie Opoien at Cap Times Idea Fest

It's probably no accident that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez was intimately familiar with Wisconsin's political geography when he spoke with Jessie Opoien at Cap Times Idea Fest in September.

Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

After I introduced Tom Perez on stage at September’s Cap Times Idea Fest, I was struck by his granular familiarity with Wisconsin’s political geography as I listened backstage.

On the one hand, his job as chair of the Democratic National Committee demands expertise in the nation’s electoral landscape, but I was impressed by his deep knowledge of our intrastate dichotomy.

“The state that gets the most articles written about it being a battleground state is the state we’re sitting in,” Perez told the large audience inside the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In his keynote interview with Jessie Opoien, our opinion editor, he urged attendees to “be able to tell your kids and grandkids” that they were “on the front lines … when we took back our democracy” by defeating Donald Trump.

Sure, he called Wisconsin “truly a ground zero” in 2020, but one wondered whether he might just say the same if he were speaking in Michigan, Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Maybe not.

In its holiday issue, The Economist, edited in London, devoted its column on American politics to a Wisconsin-centric thesis. “A state once known for stolid German virtues is now the main battleground in America’s political war,” read the column’s subhead.

The anonymous columnist (no Economist columns include an author’s name) visited Wauwatosa East High School after a recent shooting scare and found students “frightened for their lives.” Several students in the school’s Democratic Society said they avoid going to the bathroom during class times because they fear school corridors. Asked if they are scared to come to school, all raised their hands, as did the teacher, the columnist wrote.

“The blame the students attached to the conservative gun lobby for this catastrophe is one reason their society has 75 members and is growing,” while the conservative club is defunct, the columnist wrote.

The Economist noted that when Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called a special session on gun control measures, the Republican-dominated Legislature refused to even permit debate: “The mutual suspicions such rows are giving rise to, seeping through the communities of a state once known for good governance and neighbourliness, make Wisconsin acutely illustrative of American’s broader political divide.”

From across the ocean, the column nicely sums up the gun issue: “The violence America’s gun fetish has wrought is polarising everywhere. Democrats consider unconscionable Republicans’ refusal to recognise that gun control makes schools safer; Republicans fear Democrats’ harping on the subject presages a wider assault on liberty.”

Guns as fetish. Nice.

The columnist added, “That makes the state look like an augury of the political year ahead.”

But is Wisconsin really as crucial as all that?

I asked Ben Wikler, chair of the state Democratic Party, noting that even The Economist calls Wisconsin the epicenter.

“Yeah,” he responded, “Wisconsin is the center of the political universe in 2020, and it’s the legacy of polarization that dates back a while. It really exploded under (former GOP Gov. Scott) Walker, and we’ve had under one percentage point margins for three of the last five presidential elections.”

Wikler added: “Both sides know the stakes, and the voters know the stakes. This is going to be one of the most intense, hard-fought elections of anyone’s lifetime.”

Partisan enmity has been boiling in Wisconsin for a decade, of course, enflamed by Walker’s early attack on collective bargaining rights and his refusal throughout two terms to even pretend to represent the almost half of Wisconsin voters who voted for someone else. Evers finally unseated him in 2018.

Aware that Hillary Clinton chose not to visit Wisconsin in 2016 and that Democratic voter turnout efforts began late, Wikler promised changes in 2020.

“We’re building the field operation that will be working hand-in-glove with whoever wins the primaries come the fall, and one of the signal failures of 2016 is that the general election campaign wasn’t built until after the convention,” Wikler said.

“We’re doing that totally differently this time around, and we already have neighborhood action teams in every corner of the state that our field staff is working closely with. So, the key thing is to build early and build intensively so that by the time we get to the fall, we’re ready to roll and Trump doesn’t have a head start.”

Back to The Economist’s analysis: “Republican voter-registration laws aimed at depressing Democratic turnout have caused more bad blood, on both sides. Wisconsin Democrats decry their opponents’ tactics; Wisconsin Republicans, without proof but with no less certainty, accuse the Democrats of what they themselves stand accused of.

“Encouraged by the state’s 81 talk-radio stations, many believe Mr. Walker was beaten by Mr. Evers last year because of electoral fraud by black voters in Milwaukee (for which there is no evidence).”

Also mentioned is the recent court case in which conservative activists are so far succeeding at having more than 230,000 people who changed addresses removed from voter rolls, mostly in Democratic areas.

One of Trump’s top re-election advisers was caught on tape at a private event of Republican lawyers in Madison recently saying that “traditionally it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places,” adding that such suppression helps the party compete in battleground states and would again in 2020. “Let’s start playing offense a little bit,” he said, according to audio obtained by the Associated Press.

The adviser later told the AP that his remarks referred to false accusations that the GOP employs such tactics.

Sure. And up is down; black is white.

As the suppression case makes its way through state courts, anyone with a brain knows what is going to happen. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the state Republican Party.

The best chance Democrats have is via a separate case in federal court, filed by the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, which would block the removal of names.

Anyway, as 2020 looms, Wisconsin clearly is evenly divided, and, if The Economist is correct, will remain so: “Although both parties dream of Wisconsin moving towards them, America’s most contested state looks stuck … for some time yet.”

Perhaps until November, when, late on election night, Wisconsin’s electoral votes could put a Democrat over the top and into the White House.

One can dream — and organize.

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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.