Ben Wikler first came to our attention as a 12-year-old Madison middle school student who wrote letters to the editor supporting progressive ideals and progressive campaigns. He impressed us then. Now, as he bids for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s chairmanship, we are still impressed.
The party is choosing a new chair at a critical moment. It is not in crisis. But nor is it at peak strength as the 2020 presidential race approaches.
Wisconsin Democrats were devastated by the loss of the 2016 presidential race and a critical U.S. Senate contest. There were plenty of factors to blame, but we believe that a better organized, more strategic and technically savvy state party could have found the 22,749 votes that were needed to deliver Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton.
Democrats bounced back in 2018, winning the governorship and other statewide posts, but key victories came by narrow margins — Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul won by less than 30,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast. Then, five months after the November celebrations, an open seat on the state Supreme Court seat fell by 6,000 votes in the April election to a right-wing judicial activist who ran with the ardent support of the state Republican Party.
What this tells us is that Democrats can win when the circumstances are favorable, but that the party lacks the infrastructure and focus that is necessary to win consistently — in the way, for instance, that Minnesota Democrats do. In 2020, the GOP will pour everything it has into holding the state for Trump and into maintaining gerrymandered majorities in the Legislature. Even before then, the budget battle between Evers and the legislative Republicans is shaping up as an ugly political fight.
Wisconsin Democrats need to move immediately to sustain Evers as he fights for expansion of Medicaid and adequate funding for public education. At the same time, the party that delivered Wisconsin for the Democrats in every presidential race from 1988 to 2012 must prepare for 2020.
Democrats are right to feel a sense of urgency as they gather this coming weekend in Milwaukee to choose a new chair. We appreciate both candidates: state Rep. David Bowen, a Milwaukee Democrat who currently serves as the party’s vice chair, and Wikler, a Madisonian who has served in recent years as a senior adviser for the national group MoveOn.
Bowen has been a solid progressive legislator, and his decision to endorse Bernie Sanders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination showed independence and vision. We have no doubt that he’s sincere when he says he wants to “unleash the statewide potential of our party, in both rural and urban Wisconsin, to defeat President Trump and Republicans in 2020 and beyond.”
Yet we think Wikler is better positioned to jump-start the party. He comes to the competition as a nationally recognized organizer and strategist. Working with MoveOn, he earned wide acclaim for the leadership role he played in defending the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, for his savvy advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees, and for the work he put into building the base of support for Democrats running in states across the country in 2018. A veteran grassroots campaigner for Russ Feingold and Tammy Baldwin, Wikler was an early and engaged supporter of the efforts last year to elect Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and other Wisconsin progressives.
Wikler’s a skilled social media communicator with 110,000 Twitter followers, a pioneering podcaster, and a tireless organizer. He’s been at the center of efforts that have beaten Trump and the Republicans in some of the toughest fights of the past few years. This year, he’s made himself a statewide presence in the chair’s race, joining a powerful ticket that includes running mates Milwaukee County Supervisor Felesia Martin, who is bidding for first vice chair of the party, and former Fox River Valley state Senate candidate Lee Snodgrass, who is running for second vice chair.
Wikler has ambitious plans to ramp up organizing immediately, to employ social media with maximum effectiveness, and to turn the volume up on progressive messaging. “I believe in the power of grassroots activists," said Wikler. "The stakes in 2020 couldn't possibly be higher. It's time to supercharge our party in every corner of the state to fight for our progressive agenda, defeat Trump, and win Democratic victories up and down the ballot."
Democrats must choose between two fine candidates. We’re most impressed, as we have been for many years, with Ben Wikler.
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