PARDEEVILLE — Margo Miller thanked her hosts, covered herself in a blue plastic poncho and headed back into the driving sleet one recent morning, with more doors to knock on in this rural subdivision but with another new volunteer’s name on her clipboard.
Miller and about 50 other Democratic activists who braved the spring storm in mid-April returned with 160 petition signatures for a special state Assembly campaign, a local sleeper election on June 12 that Democrats hope will be anything but.
Since Republican Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin helped put him in the White House, Miller and other Democrats have channeled their anger and soul-searching into races closer to home, racking up unexpected victories that have alarmed Republicans across the country.
The epicenter of the Republican resurgence of eight years ago, Wisconsin is now the proving ground for a Democratic revival. The work of Miller and activists like her could play an important role in the fight for control of the House and Senate in November’s midterm elections. But their goal is more broad. One knock at a time, Democrats are seeking to rebuild their hold on the Upper Midwest and with it their hopes of winning the White House in 2020.
“That’s why I’m here,” Miller told Jane Breuer, a 71-year-old retired legal secretary, after knocking on her door in a rural subdivision outside tiny Pardeeville amid the rolling dairy farm country north of Madison. “You’re starting to see that blue wave, and I think we’re making progress.”
Whether a wave is actually coming is unclear, but Democrats have certainly put Republicans on edge. In January, a Democrat snagged a state Senate seat by winning over the same rural, working-class voters who voted for Trump. In April, Democrats drove up turnout in a typically little-noticed Supreme Court race. Last week, feeling the headwinds at home and across the country, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville announced he would retire from Congress, leaving behind a free-for-all for his southeastern Wisconsin seat and giving Democrats a shot at a hugely symbolic win.
While Trump’s election has ignited intensity for Democrats here, the drive in Wisconsin is not simply a backlash against the president. Before Trump there was Gov. Scott Walker, who tapped into frustrations across struggling small towns and growing suburbs in 2010 to upend the political establishment. His successful bid to dismantle the state’s union-friendly laws ignited a firestorm, an unsuccessful recall and an identity crisis for Democrats who fretted that the state’s pro-union, populist tradition was fading.
“I feel this deep sense of loss and grief. I don’t recognize it as the Wisconsin of my childhood,” said Mary Arnold, a county party chairwoman in the special election district. “We have a proud progressive reputation in Wisconsin. Some of us just feel we have to stand and fight.”
That fight means turning out fellow Democrats and left-leaning independents, especially in the rural corners of the state, who may have sat out 2016 but are motivated by anger toward Walker and Trump. Organizers armed with lists of likely Democratic voters in Breuer’s subdivision Saturday needed to do no prompting about Walker’s two-term agenda or the upcoming special election.
Keeping Walker from winning a third term won’t be easy. He is a prolific fundraiser and hardly oblivious to the shifting ground. In recent months, the governor has moderated his tone and made overtures to Democratic-leaning voters with efforts to bolster health care and education. He’s told donors he’s worried about a possible Democratic surge.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s bid for re-election is one major test of whether the party can rebound. She’ll face the winner of an August primary between a Walker acolyte and a conservative outsider.
There are GOP activists who suggest a coming Democratic wave is overstated.
“This is a good way to rally the base,” said Marian Krumburger, GOP chairwoman in Brown County, which includes Green Bay. “Is it destiny we’re going to lose in November and it’s going to be a terrible November? Not necessarily.”
Democrats have more to worry about than turnout. It’s been a rough eight years. Not only was Trump the first Republican presidential candidate to carry the state since 1984, the party has struggled to field candidates who connect with rural and working-class voters. There are more than a dozen Democrats seeking to challenge Walker in an August primary, which will leave the winner little time to campaign before November.
Though Wisconsin Republicans lead Democrats in fundraising this year, the Democrats’ cause is attracting financial backing unseen in Wisconsin in recent years. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s group contributed more than $500,000 to the Democrats’ preferred Supreme Court candidate. California billionaire Tom Steyer has named Wisconsin one of the 10 states where he plans to spend some of the $30 million he’s committed to promoting Democrats, including $2.5 million to organize young voters, who can help drive up turnout in the liberal hubs of Madison and Milwaukee.
The next front in the fight is a June 12 special election for two vacant statehouse districts — one in working-class towns outside of Green Bay, the other just a few miles outside Madison, where the capital’s suburbs turn quickly into tiny farm towns and vast rural stretches.
Trump handily beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in both districts, but the Democrats’ Supreme Court pick narrowly won both a year and a half later.
While Republicans sort out which candidate among the four running will be on the June ballot, Democrats have quickly united behind Ann Groves Lloyd, a UW-Madison academic adviser and granddaughter of a former Progressive Party state legislator.
“We have to get refocused on the values that make Wisconsin the state that we all know and love,” Lloyd told volunteers before Saturday’s door-knocking.
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