One day last week a car pulled up next to two Milwaukee school teachers, who were walking along the tree-lined — but sidewalk-deprived — streets of Fox Point, a moderately affluent suburb north of the major Wisconsin city.
“Can I help you?” the cheerful woman at the wheel asked.
“No, we’re just canvassing,” the teachers — William Harbill and Kristin Davis — replied.
“For Sandy?” the driver asked.
“That’s good,” the driver said as she drove off. “Otherwise I would have had to run you over.”
Sandy is the Democratic state representative from this area, Sandy Pasch, who is challenging incumbent state Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican leader from a larger swath of northern Milwaukee and its suburbs. Once known as a moderate Republican, Darling has been a key promoter this year of the far-right agenda of Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker’s move early this year to strip public employees of meaningful collective bargaining rights, along with huge budget cuts for services like education and tax cuts for corporations and rich individuals, triggered mass protests. Angry citizen groups and unions also petitioned to recall six Republican senators whose tenure in office will be put to voters on Tuesday. (Republicans challenged three Democrats as well. One already survived a vote. Balloting on the other two is coming up soon.)
If Democrats make a net gain of three seats, they will take control of the Senate and could block Walker’s ultra-right crusade. Democrats head into the election with polls suggesting two likely victories, two seats very close but winnable by the challengers, and two longer shots for Democrats.
Pasch’s challenge falls into the close but winnable category, with publicly available polls showing a slight edge for both candidates but within the statistical margin of error.
That adds to the already high polarization among voters, suggested by the jocular exchange between driver and canvasser. Turn-out is expected to be relatively high, especially for a special election in August, as it has been in primaries where Democrats like Pasch had to defeat fake Democratic contenders put up by Republicans, who urged supporters to take advantage of Wisconsin open primaries to vote for the fakes.
The district has also been flooded with independent efforts on behalf of each candidate, with right-wing groups making big media buys, and progressive groups countering with both ads and a more extensive grass-roots effort to contact voters. Harbill and Davis, for example, were working with the labor-community coalition, We Are Wisconsin.
Harbill, a 27-year old Wisconsin native in his fourth year as a high school English teacher, was partly motivated to canvass out of his own experience: Walker’s budget cuts closed the small school for high-risk students where he taught. He says he finds lots of voters, virtually all of whom he describes as well informed, also empathize with him as a teacher and “are really concerned about the state of education and the lack of resources.”
One of those voters was a retired teacher (who did not want her name used). A long-time Darling voter who “would never do it again,” she now says, “I think Alberta Darling has changed her stance over the years. I’m concerned about her alignment with Walker and her stands on education. Walker and all the Republicans have taken us back 50 years on collective bargaining. Everything public employees worked for is gone. It’s the start of the end of public education in Wisconsin. A lot of public school teachers I know who voted for her are appalled. I have never had political signs in my yard, but this year I felt so strongly I had to.”
A few blocks away, Donalda Hammersmith also has signs in her yard — for Darling. An interior designer and Republican loyalist who once ran for Congress, she sees herself as an advocate of states’ rights but socially moderate — and a strong backer of Walker and Darling. “I think Scott Walker is doing a terrific job, and I salute him for having the courage to do what he campaigned on” (though she acknowledged he had not run on a platform of dismantling collective bargaining).
“Do you think if Alberta thought this budget would hurt the schools, she would have voted for it? I think not,” she said. “I don’t know enough to speak intelligently about it. But it will allow schools to get rid of bad teachers and pay good teachers a better salary.”
The campaigns — and independent efforts — have turned increasingly nasty as the election nears, with charges filed against both Darling and Pasch of improper coordination between campaigns and independents or inducements to voters. Darling’s camp charged that Pasch’s role as a board member of Wisconsin Citizen Action meant there was coordination (which both the group and Pasch deny) and that a group called Wisconsin Jobs Now had offered barbeque as inducements to vote early. But Pasch supporters charge that an anti-abortion group has given voters gift cards to vote early and that right-wing groups coordinate with Darling.
Pasch supporters worry that the charges, widely aired on right-wing talk radio, may blunt her momentum or turn off some voters.
Independent anti-Pasch ads have pulled out some of the tried-and-often-quite-false tactics of the right (some with clear if not overt racial sub-texts) — accusing her of supporting welfare cheats, providing Viagra for public employees, coddling illegal aliens, and making it easy for sex offenders to get released from prison.
By contrast, the efforts for Pasch have adopted a strong populist message — attacking Darling for education and other state service budget cutbacks while reducing taxes for corporations and the rich (an income of $250,000 a year isn’t rich, she protested), for supporting U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s privatization of Medicare, and generally backing corporations while ignoring working people’s needs. But like most other campaigns — official or independent — for the recall of Republicans, there is little mention of the collective bargaining fight that triggered the recall.
The efforts for Pasch and other Democrats focus on “middle-class economic security under attack,” says Wisconsin Citizen Action executive director Robert Kraig, a theme that refers back to the labor rights protests but delivers a broader message. If Pasch can keep voters focused on that populist contrast with Darling and Walker, not on the scattershot, hot-button distractions from the right, she could pull out a win in this ordinarily Republican district. That could tip the balance of the state senate and put the brakes on Walker’s — and Darling’s — destructive attack on interests and rights of working and middle class Wisconsin residents and sound a more progressive note for politics nationally as well.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.