This week on The Downballot, hosts David Nir and David Beard recapped recent elections, including a special election for a congressional seat in Texas and primaries in South Carolina that saw one pro-impeachment Republican go down in defeat. The pair also discussed an unusual Saturday special election in Alaska for the seat that had been held for decades by the late Republican Rep. Don Young.
Nir and Beard welcomed the chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, Ben Wikler, as this week’s guest. Wikler shared more about what a state party like his does and the key races they're focusing on this November.
Beard kicked off the program with the top headlines from Tuesday night.
Texas held a special election to fill the remaining term for Democratic Rep. Filemon Vela, who resigned earlier this year to take a job with a lobbying firm. Conservative activist Mayra Flores flipped this Rio Grande Valley-based district to the GOP, winning about 51% of the vote. There were four candidates on the ballot, but just one major Republican and one major Democrat. Flores won 51% of the vote, and the major Democratic candidate, former Cameron County commissioner Dan Sanchez won about 43% of the vote.
Beard noted that there wasn't a ton of investment in trying to hold this seat on the Democratic side and that Republicans noticed an opportunity and spent heavily on the race:
Republicans spent over a million dollars on this race. They really invested. Democrats only began airing TV ads in the final week. They didn't spend very much money. This district is changing a significant amount. Biden won the current district, which is still from the 2010 redistricting cycle, by a 52-48 margin, but Biden wins the new district that will go into effect this November by a 57-42 margin, so it's getting noticeably more Democratic.
“That being said, that's definitely a shift in the margin from 52-48 Biden to—if you combine the Democrats and the Republicans—about 53% voted Republican and 47% voted Democrat, so that's a noticeable shift. It's certainly in line with a more Republican-leaning year, which is what we've been seeing with the polling and with other information that's been coming in,” Beard added. “The other factor here that's certainly worth noting is that it was very, very low turnout, so that can also be a factor in why there was somewhat of a shift. So you don't want to take this and just say, ‘Oh, we saw this shift. It'll translate all the way to November in every way,’ but it's certainly a signal worth acknowledging that it is certainly a sign of a Republican-leaning environment right now.”
The hosts then recapped primaries in South Carolina, which some have framed as “Trump's revenge.” Trump did, in fact, exact revenge against a Republican congressman in the 7th district, Tom Rice, who was one of the ten GOP House members who voted for impeachment. Rice was soundly defeated by state Rep. Russell Fry, who beat him 51-25. “What was even more remarkable about this is there were five Republicans total challenging race so for Fry to get a majority of the vote was pretty unexpected. Even Fry claimed that his own polling showed the race going to a runoff,” Nir said.
The other South Carolina race that was really closely watched this week was in the 1st District, where Rep. Nancy Mace beat former state Rep. Katie Arrington 53-45, thus avoiding a runoff. Trump endorsed Arrington, as he was furious at a few of Mace’s critical comments of him after Jan. 6, even though she very quickly backed off.
On Saturday, Alaska held a special election for Alaska's at-large congressional seat, which has been vacant since GOP Rep. Don Young passed away earlier this year. Alaska has a fairly distinct electoral system: all of the candidates were on the ballot in this first round, and the top four candidates will advance to a second round on Aug. 16. That ballot will use ranked-choice voting to determine the winner. Ballots are still being counted, but the AP has declared three of the four candidates who will advance to the second round, the first being former Gov. Sarah Palin, who has a clear lead so far with about 30% of the vote.
Beard summarized the outcome so far:
Of course, Palin is a Republican, as is the so far second-place candidate, businessman Nick Begich, who has about 19% of the vote. And then independent Al Gross, who is also the former 2020 Democratic nominee for Senate but is running now as an Independent; he's also been called to advance. He has about 13% of the vote so far. And then, the fourth slot hasn't been called yet, but former Democratic state Rep. Mary Peltola is currently in that spot and will likely advance as well, unless late-breaking ballots are radically different than what's been counted so far.
Palin's strong first-round showing, getting over 30% of the vote, makes it likely that she will be one of the last two candidates standing when this ranked-choice voting takes place. The big question, Beard points out, is: Who is going to make it into that other slot where the fourth-place candidate and then the third-place candidate are eliminated?
While Palin has always been a polarizing figure, she has Donald Trump's endorsement, which makes it much more likely that Begich would pick up Independents and Democrats, if it is those two facing off against each other at the very end of the instant runoff tabulations.
At this point, Wikler joined the hosts to discuss the crucial work of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
“Let's talk a little bit about what that rollercoaster ride has been like. I'm sure that some of our listeners are probably pretty plugged into their own state Democratic parties. But I'll bet that many folks aren't necessarily all that familiar with what their state parties do. And of course, the goal of any party organization is to get its candidates elected. But what exactly does the Wisconsin Democratic Party do to make that happen?” Nir asked.
The biggest part of the organization’s budget and its crown jewel, Wikler asserts, is its organization model, which allows it to reach voters in every corner of the state:
Our state party unusually uses the Obama campaign model, where our organizers actually build teams of volunteers that run door-to-door canvassing and phone banking operations in their own communities. And when you do that on a continuous basis, as we've done now since my predecessor, who launched these neighborhood teams in the spring of 2017, and we've built and built and built them; we now have hundreds across the state. When you do that continuously, you actually build momentum over time. So, every dollar you spend on organizing goes further, because you can have one organizer who's working with multiple teams to coach and support them and make sure they have the data they need.
A robust voter protection operation that is run on a year-round basis is now a mainstay of the organization’s work, as well. Wikler highlighted how the party has increasingly focused on voting rights over these last few years to make sure that local clerks aren't rolling back voting rights. The state Democratic Party also recruits and supports poll workers, poll observers, and lawyers who are able to help voters resolve issues. A voter protection hotline is also available for anyone in Wisconsin to call at 608-DEM-3232.
Last, but not least, the party’s data team helps make sure they’re figuring out where the voters they need to mobilize are and who they need to persuade.
Next, the trio delved into Wikler and his team’s plan to defeat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson this fall. As Wikler put it, “Ron Johnson is so, so appallingly extraordinarily bad”:
It’s not just that he says that COVID can be cured with mouthwash or says that the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were patriots who love their country and love law enforcement—which is something he actually said. He said he would've been scared if it had been Black Lives Matter protestors, but he wasn't scared with the protestors that were actually there. It's not just all that stuff. It's that he's profoundly self-serving. His claim to fame as a senator is that he insisted on an extra tax break on top of Trump's giant tax scam that personally benefited him and his biggest donor massively. It's one of the most regressive tax cuts ever passed through the United States Congress that he insisted on putting in, and that he's been billing taxpayers to fly him back to Congress from his vacation home in Florida.
So we've been making this case against him, and so many independent and grassroots organizations have done the same thing. His approval rating is now 36%, which is stunning in a year that's supposed to be tough for Democrats and good for Republicans. The Political Report called him the most vulnerable incumbent from either party in the Senate in 2022. And meanwhile, on the Democratic side, there's a contested primary. There's a bunch of candidates who've made the ballot, but we won't know our nominee until Aug. 9. And so this is a perfect kind of case in point for why having a strong party matters, because we have to build the whole general election apparatus before Aug. 9. It's like building a spaceship right on the launchpad. And then once we have the nominee, they jump into the cockpit and they hit ignition.
“Can you tell us a little bit more about this spaceship that you're building on the launchpad for the eventual Democratic nominee for the Senate race?” Nir asked.
Wikler discussed the intersection of the digital, the data, the organizing, the voter protection, the communications—all the different elements. He also mentioned that, due to state party rules, the Wisconsin Democratic Party is bound and committed to remaining neutral in the primary. “So we're not putting our thumb on the scale, but all the candidates have told us that once we have a nominee, they will work with the infrastructure that we've put in place,” he added. “As opposed to doing what has often happened in different states around the country, which is: you get a Senate nominee, and they decide they want to reshuffle all the staff and reshape how the program works and all this kind of stuff.”
As far as goals from the point of view of the state party for the state legislative elections that are coming in November, and candidates to highlight for those races, Wikler had the following to say:
Republicans have managed to re-gerrymander the maps, at least for now, with some help, I should mention, from the U.S. Supreme Court, which unlike in other states, decided to reach down and strike down our state legislative maps for reasons that will puzzle constitutional scholars for decades. So we have really, really tough maps this cycle.
Republicans are explicitly trying to get supermajorities in both chambers yet again, and we are explicitly determinedly working to stop them. We have great Democratic leaders in both chambers that we're working closely with: Greta Neubauer in the Assembly, Janet Bewley in the state Senate. We have strong candidates across the state. ...
Then next year, just to squeeze this in, in April of 2023, we have a state Supreme Court race. There will not be a lot happening across the country in elections that spring, but that race will be for the majority in Wisconsin state Supreme Court. If we can sustain the governor's veto and if we have a non-hyper right wing majority in our state Supreme court, that sets us up to have a secure and fair and legitimate election in 2024, when Wisconsin will probably be the tipping point state yet again.
Lastly, Beard asked Wikler how listeners could help: “So how can our Wisconsinite listeners get in touch with the Democratic Party in their state and get more involved?”
Wherever you might be, you can support Democrats and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in fighting for victory for Gov. Evers and defeating Ron Johnson. I think Dems up and down the ballot, including defeating Derek van Orden, who's an insurrectionist currently on probation for trying to bring a gun on a plane. He's running for Congress in the third congressional district, which is an open seat. We need help across the board, and you can get involved. You can become a monthly donor. That is the single, my favorite thing you can do.
If you go to wisdems.org/monthly, you can sign up to give a few bucks a month; that helps us to hire and know that we'll be able to keep our staff on month over month, year over year, and that in turn allows us to do the kind of deep, long term organizing, building neighborhood teams … that help us win, especially in these tough elections like the spring state Supreme Court race next year. And finally, I'll give the link wisdems.org/volunteer. You can join our virtual phone banks. You can join our volunteer operation to turn out every possible Democratic voter. Races here are so close, so often.
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