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The relief and troubling lessons of Wisconsin’s midterm elections

We’ve avoided a right-wing bloodbath, but we still need to talk about our deep-seated political failures.
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.

We’ve avoided a right-wing bloodbath, but we still need to talk about our deep-seated political failures.

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.

First, if you haven’t already, take some deep breaths. The kind where your diaphragm is pulling your lungs into your expanding stomach. The kind where if you do it deeply enough, you might even get a little buzz.

As I write this Wednesday morning, we don’t have all of the results of the 2022 midterms, but we have enough that I feel safe saying that Wisconsin has taken a few steps away from the edge of a cliff. Yes, Sen. Ron Johnson is one percentage point ahead of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (and we will get into that) but while national media has been focused on how Johnson’s seat could affect the makeup of the US Senate, the most immediate and clear dangers to Wisconsin, in my opinion, have been checked. 

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I’m referring to the gubernatorial, attorney general, and secretary of state races. Almost exactly one year ago I wrote about all the really bad bills Evers vetoed in 2021 alone, a list that I’m positive Tim Michels would have happily signed, cutting off Wisconsinites’ ability to access abortion care and the ballot box. Furthermore, Michels’ lack of transparency on the issues—waffling on abortion access, throwing out the term “flat tax” without explaining what this latest in the endless stream of bad Republican tax proposals means, etc.—meant that we had no idea how far he would go with the heavily gerrymandered Republican legislature behind him.

There was also legitimate concern going into this election that Republicans would win a supermajority in the legislature, giving them the power to override Evers’ vetoes. As of Wednesday morning, it seems unlikely that will happen. Even with our hyper-gerrymandered districts, inflation, and low approval ratings for the Democratic White House, Wisconsin Republicans did not pull off the kind of numbers they expected. 

Evers’ win is also reassuring: in our polarized, purple state, good governance and a calm demeanor can win out. For all the effort Republicans put into kneecapping Evers’ administration—even before he even took office—and trying to paint him as radical, a teacher from Sheboygan who unironically says “jazzed” won by over 3 percentage points in a state where 1 percent is a landslide.

Will Wisconsin Republicans learn anything from this? Probably not, but this election keeps at least some obstacles in place for the far right.

Attorney general and secretary of state races tend to be pretty sleepy. But Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul’s opponent, Fond du Lac District Attorney Eric Toney, said he wanted the legislature to give district attorneys the power to prosecute abortion cases outside their jurisdiction, which would have given a DA you’ve never heard of, much less never elected, the power to prosecute Dane County healthcare providers for abortion care.

While Wisconsin’s Secretary of State currently does not run elections, Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), who challenged incumbent Doug La Follette, said that “There are numerous duties that this office could perform to compliment the work of others to help oversee and administer elections.” While Loudenbeck said Joe Biden won Wisconsin, she hedged that statement, saying there were issues and questions with how the election was administered. Loudenbeck was also part of a wave of Trump-endorsed secretary of state candidates seeking to gain control of election administration.

Because while a lot of the focus of voter disenfranchisement has been Black and brown voters, young people, and voters in urban areas in general, a stunt pulled by the same people who enabled Michael Gableman’s sham “investigation” into the 2020 election shows there’s no limit to who they’ll exclude. The same party that waves the flag and weaponizes the idea of “the troops” and “support the troops” every chance they get, and even created a special loophole so service members don’t have to provide identification to receive an absentee ballot, used that same loophole—THAT THEY CREATED because they thought service members were more likely to vote Republican—to try to disenfranchise service members who voted absentee this midterm. 

So we’ve narrowly avoided the most clear, direct, and present dangers to our state for now. But we need to talk about Ron Johnson. Someone pointed out to me that Johnson is the epitome of everything that Republicans claim to hate about politicians—he married into money, he’s out of touch with issues that matter to voters, and he has accomplished nothing during his previous two terms in office except enrich himself, his family, and his donors. 

We need to talk about why the same fear tactics Republicans tried to use on Tony Evers worked on voters when it came to Mandela Barnes. We need to talk about Evers/Johnson voters. We need to talk about Democrats who actively reinforced bogus right-wing talking points about Barnes. We need to talk about how the idea of Milwaukee—not the actual city, but the mythical warzone of conservative imaginations—shapes our state politics. 

And we need to talk about race in this state; about how Wisconsin has some of the worst racial disparities the country; how Barnes’ race was weaponized in this race and that tactic apparently worked; and how there are going to be people who will read this paragraph, scoff, and say “race has nothing to do with it.” And as long as people tell themselves that, we are still going to be sending schmucks like Johnson to our halls of power, where they will only further enrich themselves, if they accomplish anything at all.

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