MADISON, Wisconsin – If there’s one symbol of Wisconsin’s Democratic comeback after the shock of President Trump’s 2016 victory and nearly a decade of subjugation by the state’s Republican legislature, it’s Jill Karofsky.
Ms Karofsky stunned most of Wisconsin, and herself, when in April, she claimed an 11-point victory in a race for a seat on the state’s Supreme Court in an election, the Republicans across the state have prevented its Democratic governor from delaying due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I didn’t see a way to win,” Judge Karofsky said during a six mile race on Monday. But when the ballot opened on April 7, she said, “I went for a run and I came home and looked at my phone and saw all these fine people voting in Milwaukee. And that’s when I started to have a silver lining.
For Wisconsin Democrats, hope has been lacking since 2010, when Republicans took control of state government and began systematically dismantling a progressive political infrastructure built over generations.
While Judge Karofsky’s race was officially non-partisan, her allies clarified the battle lines – the contest was a referendum on Mr. Trump and Republican governance in the state. And her victory, with its margin of surprise, provided a major psychological boost to a party beaten by the state’s dominant Republicans and still scared in 2016, when Hillary Clinton, who has never visited the state, lost Wisconsin by just 22,748 votes – a margin burnt in the memory of the state’s top Democrats.
It wasn’t until the closing hours of the 2020 campaign, when more than half of the state’s voters had voted ahead of the poll, that Democrats in Wisconsin allowed themselves to say aloud that they believed that former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would carry the state. by a healthy margin when the count was to be completed on Wednesday.
It’s an uptrend due to the combination of high turnout in Madison and Milwaukee, signs that they’ve won back some rural Democrats who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, and a feeling that since 2016 , they ultimately won more than they did. lost. Democrats also believe that a recent surge in statewide coronavirus cases has helped refocus voters on the president’s handling of the pandemic.
After Ms. Clinton’s loss in Wisconsin, Democrats started organizing from scratch. The Democratic National Committee and other liberal organizations in 2017 began making investments in the state the party neglected during the Obama years. In 2019, the Wisconsin Democratic Party elected its chairman Ben Wikler, a veteran organizer of Moveon.org who over the past 18 months has raised record amounts for the party, raising more than double the funds than his Republican counterparts.
It all unfolded in the ashes of the devastating competition of 2016, when Democrats were certain of a victory, but unwilling to do much to make it happen.
During that campaign, Mandela Barnes, who would be elected lieutenant governor two years later, asked people to pose with him in photos for Ms Clinton’s Instagram page. “People were like, ‘Ehhh, I don’t really know about this,” Mr. Barnes said. “I was like, ‘We’re friends!’ But also, damn.
But despite the new optimism, after so many meteoric defeats, voters feel that nothing should be taken for granted.
“For the past 10 years it’s like living with a boot around your neck,” said Andy Olsen, a policy advocate for an environmental organization who spent Tuesday morning reminding constituents of Madison’s Monona Terrace send an SMS to three friends to remind them to vote as well. . “We kept getting knocked over and trying to get up. People are reluctant to hope for too much. “
Even before the April judicial elections, there were already signs that the state’s fragile Trump coalition was crumbling. Republican margins in suburban Milwaukee plummeted in the 2018 midterm election, while Democrats grabbed some of the voters Mr. Trump won in 2016, especially in Fox Valley, a key region of the country. state battlefield.
Without Ms. Clinton as a foil, many of those voters began to judge Mr. Trump for himself and didn’t like the results.
“I voted for Trump four years ago by default,” said Ted Schartner, a Green Bay plasterer who voted for Mr. Biden last Wednesday. “I regretted it almost immediately. I didn’t like the way things were going.
As voters colluded with a Trump presidency, Democrats in Wisconsin found themselves breaking out of their collective nadir. Not only was this the first time since 1984 that a Republican won state electoral votes, Democrats were excluded from state government, found themselves in a deep minority in the state legislature, and made facing a State Supreme Court controlled by conservative judges.
By the time Mr. Trump won the White House, Wisconsinites had already grown accustomed to the constant partisan warfare that would define his administration.
“You go to a gathering of friends and it immediately turns into politics,” said Roben Haggart, who served as Minocqua Town Clerk for 22 years. “It always turns into an argument.”
Mr. Trump’s victory here has led to the saying that Wisconsin, with its large population of white working-class voters, has become a piece of the Republican Electoral College map, beyond the reach of Democratic candidates.
The state’s democratic infrastructure was in shambles, but gradually voters began to turn against Mr. Trump. In January 2018, a Democrat won a special election in a rural state Senate district Mr. Trump won by 17 points. That fall, Democrats mounted anger against Mr. Trump at a statewide election sweep, ousting Scott Walker, a two-term governor who had crippled the state’s public sector unions .
In June 2019, Wisconsin Democrats elected their state president, Mr. Wikler, who had moved his family to his childhood home in Madison. Mr. Wikler brought an organizational and fundraising weight the state had never seen. The Wisconsin Democratic Party has raised $ 58.7 million in the past two years, more than double the price of Republicans in the state.
“Trump’s victory, in many ways, has accelerated and advanced the necessary change within our party,” said Alex Lasry, senior official with the Milwaukee professional basketball franchise, weighing in on the seat of Ron Johnson, a Republican senator, in 2022. “Democrats have realized that we cannot stay on the sidelines of this off-year election.”
Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Madison, said Mr. Biden’s campaign and Mr. Wikler’s leadership created a dramatically different political landscape than it was four years ago.
“The Biden campaign is 180 degrees different from what we had four years ago,” Pocan said. One important difference: Mr. Biden has visited Wisconsin three times since elementary school. “The candidate never came past primary four years ago, we didn’t have resources specifically for Wisconsin – or very few resources.”
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The 2016 contest was marked by a drop in voter turnout among black voters in Milwaukee, who are now a key part of Mr. Biden’s hopes for a win in Wisconsin.
Reverend Greg Lewis, executive director of the Milwaukee Souls at Effort Polls, said the city’s black electorate had changed, in part thanks to Mr. Trump’s presidency. Since 2012, Mr Lewis said, the money that was lacking in 2016 is now going to community leaders for exit-voting efforts, just as black Milwaukeeans have become more committed to impeaching Mr Trump.
“These groups weren’t active four years ago because we didn’t have the funding or the resources to do the things we’re doing now,” Lewis said. “I just don’t think the Democratic Party has entered the community enough to energize itself and make sure people are ready to do what needs to be done.”
In October, Wisconsin’s coronavirus peak was among the worst in the country – and by far the worst of any state on the presidential battlefield. The president’s approval rating for the pandemic in Wisconsin has fallen from 51% in March to just 40%, according to a Marquette Law School poll.
“We have people who are supposed to run the country who just raised their hands and said there was nothing we can do about this pandemic – which is clearly not true,” said Kate Walton , Madison’s emergency room nurse who said she voted for Mr. Biden.
One after another, Biden voters across the state last week said their votes were driven primarily by a desire to oust Mr. Trump.
“I wouldn’t vote Trump for nothing, even if you paid me all the money he says he’s worth,” said Terri Konkol, a 58-year-old Milwaukeean who voted for Mr. Biden on Saturday from her chair rolling. She blamed the president for the spread of the virus in the state. “In all of our life, have we ever had to wear masks?”
Rose Goeb, 62, a Milwaukee preschool teacher, voted for Mr. Biden early on one of the first days she could.
About Mr. Trump, she said, “I decided a long time ago that this man did not have the character or the discipline to be president.”
And on Tuesday in Madison, among a line of voters waiting to vote when the polls opened at 7 a.m., was Helen Hawley, an artist inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders and a staunch desire to impeach Mr. Trump.
“It’s hard to be hopeful about anything right now,” said Ms. Hawley, 40. “But it’s better to have hope than not to. Hope is just something that I hold onto because it’s a good idea.
Reid J. Epstein reported from Madison, Wisconsin, and Astead W. Herndon from Milwaukee.