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Capitol Punishments: Giving power away to Grothman and Gallagher

Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Why do two of Wisconsin’s outlandishly bad Congressmen have no Democratic challengers?

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Candidates for the 2022 fall midterm election had to turn in their paperwork last week, so we’re seeing a trickle of news on who’s in, who’s out, and who is running uncontested. 

In 2020, races in 18 Assembly districts, nearly a third of all state Senate districts, and almost all for district attorneys were uncontested. That doesn’t even get into the judge, school board, and local municipal elections.

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We haven’t seen any extensive down-ballot analysis yet, but Wisconsin Public Radio reported this week that U.S. Representatives Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay) and Glenn Grothman (R- Glenbeulah) are running uncontested. They don’t have Democratic opponents, though they may be primaried. Both Grothman and Gallagher’s Republican challengers barely passed the 1,000 signature threshold, so we’ll see if they make it on the ballot.

Gallagher presents himself as a centrist, though his true colors come out in his frequent Fox News appearances and a bizarre column in the National Review that uses a Chinese action film and Chinese propaganda to argue that diversity, equity, and inclusion are undermining US power abroad. 

But the big one that’s getting my goat is Grothman, of Wisconsin’s 6th district, who a wise man (my editor) described in a tweet as a “a racist expired donut.” Grothman’s district includes the Fox Valley, a decidedly purple region. His years-long track record of buffoonish, cruel statements make him an easy politician to hate. Yet not a single Democrat decided to run against him. Why?

The most obvious answer is gerrymandering. An analysis of the congressional maps by Marquette University found Gallagher and Grothman’s districts favored Republicans by 16 points. 

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A lot of people are disappointed and discouraged by how the fight against gerrymandering turned out, including me. But giving up and not running gives Republicans exactly what they want—uncontested, unchallenged control of the future of this state. Why aren’t these incumbents more of a target for the state Democratic Party? Or for Fox Valley politicians with higher ambitions, like Tom Nelson, currently running a dud of a campaign in the Democratic primary for Senate?

But I also understand that this is a particularly hostile time to run. Even before the terrorism campaign against Kiel, Wisconsin, which resulted in school officials capitulating to the bullies of a non-binary student, extremists have bullied Democratic challengers. 

In 2020, one week after he announced he would run against Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Robert Prailes dropped out after his family received “some ugly attacks.” Vos countered on social media that he too had been subjected to harassment, because he received dog poop in the mail.

This is a bigger challenge to our Democracy than one candidate or one election and the way to overcome it is to organize and stay organized. In an interview with Iowa writer Lyz Lenz, J.D. Scholten, who ran against former Iowa Rep. Steve King in 2018, said that it can be easy to get caught up in the fact that “politics is very zero sum.” 

“You either win or you lose, and you move on regardless,” Scholten told Lenz. “I got caught in this middle ground where we lost, but we did something so special that I didn’t want to just let that go.”

He founded RuralVote.org, which has built up an infrastructure for year-round organizing and building up a database on rural voters to help Democrats connect in those regions. 

“[L]et’s say I didn’t do this. All the data, everything I had for the last four years was just going to go to waste,” Scholten said in the interview with Lenz. “There are these campaigns that, you know, they might not have won, but so what? So much of campaigns are outside of your control. But they gain so much information and data and just, it’s crazy that people are just willing to let that go. And then it’s like a startup the next cycle.”

Voting is the bare minimum. What this state needs is for people to organize, connect with voters, build up data, and then, when the right candidate comes along, they can get the support they need. 

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And one thing to keep in mind; the gerrymandering data was based on past elections, and history is not destiny. Wisconsin is a purple state, but many left-leaning rural voters likely feel abandoned. And they deserve representation. 

Losing an election is not the worst thing that can happen in a gerrymandered state. Giving up is.

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