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Wisconsin Democrats assess what went wrong, look ahead

By Scott Bauer
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democrats reeling from historic losses in last week’s election and grappling with how to bounce back say they must do a better job articulating their vision, particularly to working and middle class workers who used to be reliably on their side.

Democratic strategists, office holders and party leaders also warn against overreacting, saying strong turnout for Donald Trump helped other Republican candidates in the state who otherwise would have lost.

“I didn’t know a single Democrat or progressive that woke up Wednesday that wasn’t mad as hell,” said strategist Patrick Guarasci, who lives in Milwaukee and worked for Democratic politicians and liberal groups. “That fear, that anger, needs to be welled up inside every person and focused into action. That will help us as we find our way through these next few steps in what we need to do.”

The path forward will not be easy for Democrats, and how they respond to the drubbing they took this year will be put to the test soon. In 2018, Democrats will be defending a U.S. Senate seat held by Tammy Baldwin and possibly trying to prevent Republican Gov. Scott Walker from winning a third term. Walker hasn’t said definitively whether he will seek re-election.

The Democratic losses in this election were unexpected and deep.

Hillary Clinton’s loss in Wisconsin was the first time since 1984 that the Democratic presidential nominee didn’t carry the state.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s win over Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold marks the first time since 1980 that a Republican has won election to the Senate in a presidential year in Wisconsin.

Republicans increased their majority in the Assembly by one seat, giving them their largest numbers since 1957.

And Republicans gained at least one seat in the state Senate, resulting in their strongest majority since 1971.

Taken together it was the worst election for Democrats in Wisconsin since 2010, when they lost the governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and control of both chambers of the Legislature in one night.

“I think people in general are tired of the same old style,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who’s been in Congress since 2013 after a 12-year career in the state Assembly.

Democrats should have never lost in winning over working and middle class voters with their vision for improving the economy, said Pocan, whose district includes the Madison area as well as more rural counties in the south-central part of the state. There is justifiable anger among those people, many of whom were attracted to Trump, that they have been left behind, Pocan said.

Sachin Chheda, a liberal strategist from Milwaukee, agreed with Pocan that Democrats need to do a better job articulating their message.

“We need, clearly, to do a better job explaining why our policies will make lives better for people who aren’t voting for us,” Chheda said. “If we think it’s right and people don’t believe it, then we need to do a better job explaining it.”

Democrats were confident the typically higher turnout in presidential years would propel them to victory this year. Democratic turnout was lower in urban areas for Clinton this year than it had been for Obama in 2012, and Trump outperformed her in more rural parts of the state.

“It’s been obvious for a few years but it exploded on Tuesday,” said Tim Cullen, a 72-year-old former state senator from Janesville who is preparing to run for governor. “The Democratic Party has to speak clearly to rural small towns in Wisconsin and America.”

More also needs to be done to motivate African American, female, Hispanic and young voters in Milwaukee, Guarasci said.

“The most important thing is people don’t give up and they continue to fight,” said Scot Ross, director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. “They need progressives and Democrats out there fighting because this stuff, these issues, matter.”

Cullen was optimistic that Democrats will bounce back in the 2018 midterm elections.

“Even though it looks like we’re at a political bottom,” Cullen said, “things can change very quickly in America and in Wisconsin.”

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