Before Wisconsin’s Midterms, Anxiety and Hope About Democracy

On a recent autumn afternoon, Greta Neubauer picked up a stack of campaign flyers and signs at the Democratic Party headquarters in Kenosha and drove her car, loaded with election paraphernalia, to a middle-class street with neatly trimmed lawns and no sidewalks. Neubauer is a Wisconsin state legislator and the leader of the Democratic minority in the State Assembly. That day, she wasn’t campaigning in her own district. She was knocking on doors for Tip McGuire, an incumbent Democrat, whose seat the Party almost certainly must hold if it hopes to prevent Republicans from winning a super-majority in the state legislature on Tuesday.

As Neubauer walked along Daisy Lane, she consulted a printout with the names and addresses of prospective voters, and discussed an election that is as unpredictable and high-stakes as any in recent memory. Four of the past six Presidential contests in Wisconsin were decided by a margin of less than one per cent, and Tony Evers, the Democratic governor, running in a close race for rëelection, won four years ago by barely twenty-nine thousand votes. “These polls are saying someone’s up one, down one, or down two,” she said. “The reality is, we do not know. And it’s just incredibly hard to know who’s actually going to show up on Election Day.”

Neubauer, who is thirty-one, was first elected to the State Assembly at the age of twenty-six. She has watched Republicans gerrymander legislative districts in a way that makes it all but impossible for Democrats to attain a majority in the statehouse, despite the fact that Democrats won every statewide office in 2018, and Joe Biden carried the state two years later. Yet, after the 2020 election, Republicans held sixty-one seats in the assembly, the Democrats thirty-eight. By one calculation, Democrats would need to beat Republicans by twelve points statewide just to win a majority. Last year, in their most aggressive round of gerrymandering yet, the G.O.P. redrew three northwest Wisconsin districts that Biden had won. Under the new lines, all three districts would have been carried by Trump.

If Republicans secure veto-proof majorities, they could carry out their agenda, even if Evers is reëlected. That might include democracy-subverting proposals to eliminate the state’s bipartisan Elections Commission, and take direct control of the certification of election results and establishment of voting procedures. They have also vowed to revive all hundred and forty-six bills that Evers has vetoed since taking office, encompassing school funding, policing, gun laws, and abortion rights. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Evers called a special session to address an 1849 law, newly in effect following the Court’s ruling, that all but banned abortions in the state, and made it a felony in some circumstances to perform an abortion. (Evers and a significant majority of Wisconsin voters favor access to abortion.) The G.O.P. leadership in the State Senate refused to discuss it, gavelling the session closed after fifteen seconds. Only two per cent of bills proposed by Democrats in the assembly were even granted a hearing this session, Neubauer said.

Neubauer, who was up early on Sunday, knocking on doors, says that she is not sleeping well these days, and not only because of the battle over the legislature. Her anxiety is echoed by Democrats across the state, who are struggling to elect Evers to a second term and trying to flip the Senate seat held since 2011 by Ron Johnson, a Republican. Recent polls show Johnson holding a slight lead over his Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes. On Twitter, Barnes said, on Saturday, “we won’t be outworked or out-organized.”

Ben Wikler, the leader of the state Democratic Party, told me that he does not expect one side or the other to build an insurmountable lead early on Election Night. Democrats’ optimism this summer, fuelled by polling that showed strong opposition to the end of Roe, has faded. But he believes that the ground game, and the backlash against the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, especially among young voters, will propel Democrats to better-than-expected results. They are far ahead of their 2018 pace on door-knocking and other forms of voter contacts. “We’re anxious, because it’s going to be incredibly close,” he said. “The feeling is, if we do absolutely everything, then we can win at four in the morning.” At 4:00 A.M., Wikler explained, the final absentee-ballot counts are likely to be released in cities such as Kenosha, Green Bay, and Milwaukee.

Some critics contend that Democrats are focussing too much on abortion rights and not spending enough time addressing economic issues, including the rising cost of food, gas, shelter, and borrowing of all kinds. But Wikler said that participants in focus groups have told moderators that “prices go up and down, but, if you lose your freedom, that’s forever.” Democratic candidates, he said, want voters to know that “there is one party that wants to throw doctors in jail, and one party that is doing everything it can to stop that from happening.”

To boost Democratic turnout, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, was in Madison two weeks ago, rallying young voters on behalf of Barnes. Elizabeth Warren was in town, too. Bernie Sanders made four stops in the state in the days before the election. And Barack Obama jetted into Milwaukee in late October, after an earlier visit to Detroit—and one in Atlanta the night before. The line to see him started forming hours before his appearance at the historically Black North Division High School. Supporters were bussed in from distant parking lots, and people in Barnes gear, holding clipboards, tried to recruit canvassers. One elderly woman held a magazine with Obama’s photo on the cover, hoping that she might get close enough to ask him to sign it. Another, in a red cape and superhero costume, said that he was “fightin’ fascism.”

Obama stepped onto the stage to wild cheers and the sound of U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” walk-up music he has used since his first Presidential campaign. Obama embraced Barnes and Evers, and soon lit into the Republicans in a series of riffs. Varyingly loose and pointed, incredulous and insistent, he accused Johnson—who has called Social Security a “legal Ponzi scheme,” and has said that it should be considered discretionary spending and reviewed every year by Congress—of favoring the wealthy over the working class. He highlighted a statement by Evers’s Republican challenger, Tim Michels, that it’s “not unreasonable” to force a rape victim to give birth.

Obama acknowledged the pain of inflation, one of the most effective Republican attack lines this year. He pointed out that rising prices are a global phenomenon, spurred by the pandemic, the faltering supply chain, and the war in Ukraine. The question, he said, is “who cares about you,” and what solutions the G.O.P. would offer. “This current crop of Republican politicians, they’re not interested in solving problems,” he said. “They’re interested in making you angry and then finding somebody to blame. And they’re hoping that that’ll distract you from the fact that they don’t have any answers of their own.” He urged the crowd not to “get bamboozled.” After the speech, Neubauer, beaming, pressed toward the rope line, where Obama gripped dozens of outstretched hands.

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