In March 2017, five months before Tony Evers announced what seemed a quixotic run for governor, Mark Pocan was talking to me about what kind of candidate could beat Republican incumbent Scott Walker.
“I would argue that our governor candidate right now may not even be someone who you and I are thinking of, and that may not be a bad thing,” observed Pocan, our local Democratic congressman.
Evers fit that bill. While he had won two statewide elections for superintendent of public instruction, he was no one’s idea of an obvious choice.
In a column then, I described my ideal Democratic candidate as someone who could provide a “positive, inclusive message for our scarred and divided state.” Here, in paraphrased form, is how I continued:
Someone from outside Madison or Milwaukee who could be far more than “not Scott Walker” and begin to reunite a state that was once proudly unified.
Someone with an appealing personal story outside politics, a person who could speak to Wisconsin’s rich tradition of valuing good schools and universities, well-maintained roads and quality public services, pristine natural resources and solid worker and consumer safeguards.
Someone who could communicate a deep empathy for those struggling across rural and small-town Wisconsin, synthesizing issues and themes in a manner to which anyone from Superior to Racine could relate.
Someone who could lead Wisconsin’s return to an era in which the governor represented an ideological middle swath of the state.
Someone who could be in some measure post-partisan, unlike Walker, whose core brand was non-consultative, single-party rule.
Someone who could withstand a barrage of attack ads by Walker’s deep-pocketed donors.
And finally, someone who could “make Wisconsin great again,” or, short of that, at least very good again.
Turns out, on all points, Evers was that someone.
Yet why am I writing about him again so soon after my post-election column? Because a) Walker seems bent on denying his own defeat while GOP legislators seem bent on diluting Evers’ powers before he even starts, and b) Evers’ defeat of Walker is about all anybody in Madison is talking about this month.
Call Evers bland if you want, but this euchre-playing, polka-dancing, Egg McMuffin-loving former elementary school principal came across to voters as utterly authentic. And as a 67-year-old survivor of esophageal cancer, words in GOP attacks were unlikely to hurt him.
Evers’ biggest campaign gimmick seemed to be his move from geeky wire-rimmed eyeglasses to contemporary dark frames. (GOP foes seemed to concur about my description; they pictured him in the old frames in their attack ads.)
Every day since Evers’ victory, it seems someone shares their relief at having an all-around good guy moving into the Capitol’s East Wing after eight years of a smug partisan ideologue occupying that space.
It seems clear from his early post-election remarks that Evers will proceed carefully as governor and continue to try to collaborate with a hostile Republican Legislature, one whose margins are guaranteed more by absurd gerrymandering than the public’s will. Those GOP leaders, predictably, want to change some rules in the Capitol to diminish Evers’ powers even before he takes office.
Those same Republicans rationalize Walker’s loss by calling it the “Madison midterm,” arguing that somehow lefties here — those angry mobs from long-ago Act 10 protests — all turned out to eke out a victory over the “hardworking” taxpayers in the rest of the state. (In Republican-speak, “hardworking” refers to white people outside Madison and Milwaukee.)
These same GOP legislators are huffing and puffing about wanting to protect Walker’s record of “reforms.” With Republicans, it’s always about “reforms,” usually about “reforming” things out of existence: insurance coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, adequate funding for education and decent roads, respect for science in environmental decisions, to name a few.
“We’ve been such reformers,” Walker told reporters with a straight face after his loss. “I may have reformed myself out of a job.”
Even in defeat, Walker has managed to embarrass himself, just as he did in his brief, out-of-his-depth campaign for president in 2016. When he left that race, the headline on New York Times columnist Frank Bruni’s column summarized the effort: “Scott Walker’s cocktail of ignorance.”
This time, Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, focused his national audience on Walker’s comment about his loss to reporters: “In no way do I see it as a rejection, but rather just a larger electorate than we’ve ever seen in the past.”
In Walker’s world, because he got 30,000 more votes this year than in 2014, the tidal wave of voter turnout that beat him was somehow not a “rejection.”
Todd commented on MTP Daily: “It’s kind of like an NFL coach, saying, ‘Hey sure, we scored fewer points than the other guy so ‘technically’ we lost, but the points we scored would have won last week and the week before so how do you see it as a loss?’ ”
But back to Tony Evers.
The governor-elect is already a breath of fresh air. He will, in some respects, be a Tommy Thompson for this century, a governor who wins narrowly and then endeavors to represent everyone, however they voted.
In an election post-mortem in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Thompson, a Republican elected governor four times, seemed to allude to his preferred but long-abandoned big-tent style of inclusive politics: “It was something that no other candidate really tried to do. That’s what needed to be done but nobody listened and followed my lead on that.”
Somehow, one suspects Evers will follow Thompson’s model, not primarily as a political calculation, but because — as much as it vexes Republicans — it comes naturally to Evers.