Democratic Candidates for Governor Could Turn the Upper Midwest Blue Again by Mobilizing New Voters

Campaigns in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan aim to elect candidates with strong pro-labor platforms by hunting where the votes are.

At left, Reyna Gengler canvassing in Milwaukee. At right, Precious Crawley. Photos: Courtesy of Fight for $15

Reyna Gengler, 41, is a lifelong resident of Milwaukee who’s never voted. In 2018, she says, she’ll vote for the first time. But that’s not all: She’s jumped directly from being a non-voter to a committed activist. She’s working as a canvasser for the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization to get out the vote for Tony Evers, the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin. Moreover, she now believes she may want to run for office one day herself.

Precious Crawley, 26, is also a Milwaukeean, and — as is obvious after hearing her speak for just five minutes — a born organizer. But this year is the first time she’s gotten involved in politics beyond voting. She too is canvassing for Evers, even though she has three children and two other jobs at McDonald’s and a Family Dollar store.

Both Gengler and Crawley are part of a push by the organization Fight for $15 to elect Democratic governors in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan — that is, the Upper Midwest, where the modern U.S. labor movement was born but recently has seemed on the verge of dying. Notably, the strategy does not primarily aim at persuading those who vote regularly in every election. Instead, Fight for $15 is attempting to find and mobilize infrequent or non-voters, particularly people of color, by knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors in African-American and Latino communities.

The strategy aims to pull people into the political process by making clear that voting can translate into direct, material benefits. The Democratic candidates in all three states are running on platforms that include support for a $15 minimum wage, opposition to union-killing “right-to-work” laws, and Medicaid expansion.

Gengler and Crawley may be particularly effective at their jobs because they know what they’re talking about from experience. Both have urgent medical needs — Gengler can’t afford medication for several serious conditions, and Crawley says she was caught in the middle of a police car chase and needs a third operation to repair damage to her liver — and neither has health insurance. Both of their lives would be changed by a $15 minimum wage. Crawley currently makes $7.50 an hour at McDonald’s and $7.75 at her Family Dollar job.

Based on the most recent polls, Fight for $15 and newly active constituencies may well succeed on Tuesday in putting Democrats in the governor’s mansion in all three states. If so, it would mark a sharp U-turn for the politics of the Upper Midwest and significantly increase the odds that the Democratic presidential candidate will win in 2020.

• Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was first elected in 2010 and is now running for a third term. Walker became a hard-right superstar in 2011 when, defying 100,000 protesters who came to the state capital of Madison, he successfully passed a bill aimed at crushing public-sector unions. This was particularly striking in Wisconsin, given that in 1959, it became the first state where public-sector workers could engage in collective bargaining. Walker went on to sign a right-to-work law in 2015, hamstringing private-sector unions. He’s also refused to take full advantage of the Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act, costing Wisconsin $1 billion and an unknown number of Cheesehead lives.

October’s three polls show Evers ahead by 5 percent, tied with Walker, and 1 percent behind, respectively. Evers may not have the election in the bag, but he has a clear shot at knocking off one of America’s most effective Gilded Age-style politicians.

A victory would reverberate far beyond Wisconsin. Donald Trump won the state by just 23,000 votes out of 3 million cast. That was the first time Wisconsin went Republican since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide. Both Democrats and Republicans recognize — the former with distress, the later with glee — that this wouldn’t have happened without Walker’s demobilizing attacks on labor.

• Michigan Democrats were surprised when Rick Snyder, who’d served on the board of a computer company when it outsourced thousands of jobs to China, won the governor’s race in 2010. But they were truly poleaxed in 2012 when he managed to pass a right-to-work law for Michigan. This was, in a state that was once America’s central fortress of union power, akin to outlawing show business in California. In 2014, Snyder also headed off attempts to raise the Michigan minimum wage via referendum to $10.10 by signing a bill boosting it to $9.25. He’s also prevented cities from passing their own higher minimum wage.

Snyder did accept the full ACA Medicaid expansion. But Bill Schuette, the state’s attorney general and the 2018 GOP candidate for governor, has attacked the expansion and joined numerous lawsuits trying to bring down the ACA. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic candidate, promises to protect Medicaid and possibly expand it further. Recent polls have Whitmer way ahead.

Trump won Michigan in an incredible squeaker, by about 10,000 votes out of nearly 5 million. As in Wisconsin, the Republican candidate hadn’t won Michigan for decades, since 1988, and it couldn’t have happened without a GOP governor.

• Bruce Rauner, a Republican first elected governor of Illinois in 2014, has a reported net worth of $500 million from his career as head of a private equity firm. The minimum wage in Illinois has been stuck at $8.25 since 2010, and Rauner vetoed a bill that would have raised it to $15 by 2022. While there was never any chance that the legislature in deep-blue Illinois would pass a right-to-work law, Rauner has done what he could around the edges to undermine unions. Illinois accepted the ACA Medicaid expansion in 2013 before Rauner arrived in office, which has made him quite unhappy.

Rauner is almost certain to lose to the Democratic candidate, J.B. Pritzker, in a landslide. Pritzker is heir to a family fortune that’s made him a billionaire, but is running on a powerfully pro-labor platform.

So if the Democrats sweep these races on Tuesday, it will alter the balance of power in the region and perhaps the 2020 election. But it could do more: It would be a striking demonstration that the Democratic Party should adopt a different model of politics.

The U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnout rates among its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, coming in 26th out of 32 countries. The nations we beat out include such democratic powerhouses as Slovenia and Latvia. Interestingly, the U.S. has a high rate of participation among registered voters. But Americans are registered to vote at an unusually low rate, about 70 percent. It’s much harder to become a registered voter in the U.S. than in comparable countries.

The significance of our voter turnout levels can be seen in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton received 65.9 million votes, while Trump got 63 million. But 98.1 million Americans were eligible to vote — about 40 percent of the total — but didn’t. And of course, voter turnout is far lower during midterm elections, when 60 percent of Americans generally fail to show up at the polls.

Who are the non-voters? Compared to voters, they are, as a careful Pew Research Center study recently found, “more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent, and nonwhite. And non-voters were much more Democratic.”

It would therefore seem obvious that the Democratic Party’s top priority at all times across all elections should be to find, register, and mobilize intermittent voters and non-voters for the long-term. Yet it has done so only in fits and starts, spending the rest of the time either fixated on winning over voters in the mythical middle of the political spectrum or hectoring third-party voters.

This dynamic can be seen in distilled form in a remarkable story about the aftermath of the 1972 election. Following Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon in 1968, the civil rights and feminist movements forced the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination process to become far more open and small-d democratic. But the party’s conservative, corporate wing loathed the changes, and loathed George McGovern, the man who took advantage of them to seize the nomination for himself in 1972. The AFL-CIO refused to endorse him. One Chicago pol was heard saying that McGovern was “gonna lose because we’re gonna make sure he’s gonna lose.”

McGovern indeed did lose to Nixon in a landslide. Yet Nixon had oddly short coattails, with Republicans picking up just 12 seats in the House and even losing two in the Senate.

Meanwhile, McGovern in defeat had brought enormous energy from social movements into the Democratic Party. This included 600,000 small donors — i.e., precisely the people most likely to vote, volunteer, canvass, and drag friends and family to the polls. After the election, McGovern turned this list over to the Democratic National Committee on old-timey computer tape. By then, the head of the DNC was Bob Strauss, a corporate lawyer and lobbyist so GOP-friendly he’d later become an ambassador during the George H.W. Bush administration. Strauss appears to have simply discarded the list, telling subordinates, “Those are just those issue-oriented people, let those people go.” Strauss died in 2014 and never explained his actions. However, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he and his allies preferred to lose elections without such troublemaking newcomers than to win with them.

In the decades since, various insurgencies within the Democratic Party have tried to reorient it to appeal to disaffected outsiders, sometimes with success. Steve Cobble, the national delegate coordinator for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, explains that the campaign’s key belief was that it was critical to “expand the base electorate with more African-American and Latino and young voters.”

Cobble points to a prophetic speech in which Jackson proclaimed,

We have not proven that we can win and make progress without each other. … The team that got us here must be expanded. …

We cannot be satisfied by just restoring the old coalition. Old wine skins must make room for new wine. We must heal and expand. …

If blacks vote in great numbers, progressive whites win. It’s the only way progressive whites win. If blacks vote in great numbers, Hispanics win. If blacks, Hispanics and progressive whites vote, women win. When women win, children win. When women and children win, workers win. We must all come up together.

These weren’t empty words: Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns registered enormous numbers of new African-American voters. Jackson recently said he believed this “laid the groundwork for Clinton in ’92. We fundamentally changed the registration population, but more importantly, the activist population.” For Cobble’s part, he’s continued working at the left-most edge of the Democratic Party ever since and was part of the backstage effort to draft Bernie Sanders to run for president in 2016.

Here in the present day, Gengler and Crawley report that their clear, simple, positive message is an easy sell with intermittent and new voters.

“I speak to people every day; initially they don’t want to speak,” says Gengler. “They’re running out to work. But [after a conversation, they say,] ‘You can count on me to vote.’ … They respond to $15 and a union, they respond quickly. … They’ll send me to all their neighbors — ‘Talk to this person, talk to this person’ — they’re really, really motivated.’”


Precious Crawley canvassing for Tony Evers, the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin.

Photo: Courtesy of Fight for $15
Part of their success may be attributable to the fact that both canvassers speak from a moral stance that’s a million miles away from standard Democratic focus-grouped gruel. Watching Wisconsin’s rich get richer while the lives of everyone she knows get harder, says Crawley, feels “like you just cooked and my kids are smelling it, and you tell me there ain’t no plates.”

We don’t know who’ll win on Tuesday. But the strategy being pursued in the Upper Midwest may have both immediate political impact and something more subtle that goes beyond vote counts. “This is a huge life change,” says Gengler about her first political experience. “It’s very personal … a whole new world. I didn’t realize I had a voice. That I could vote, and that it mattered.”

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