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The 2022 midterm elections nationally and in Wisconsin upended history. The president’s party usually loses these elections across the board. Not this time. Nationally, Democrats kept their Senate majority, narrowly lost the House, netted two governors and won state legislative control in Michigan and Minnesota and the Pennsylvania House as well. Moreover, Wisconsin Democratic Governor Tony Evers won a resounding reelection, with narrower wins for Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul and Secretary of State Doug La Follette. No red wave.

However, there was also bad news for Wisconsin. Heartbreakingly, Democratic U.S. Senate challenger Mandela Barnes lost narrowly to unaccomplished GOP incumbent Ron Johnson. Wisconsin will continue to have only one working senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Worse, Republican Derrick Van Orden, “present” at the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, won the race in the open third congressional district. And, Democrats lost one state Senate seat and three Assembly seats. Fortunately, the GOP failed to get a supermajority in the Assembly to override Governor Evers’ vetoes of extremist legislation.

The Wisconsin election maps underscore even bigger problems. Although Evers flipped a couple of rural counties won by Trump in 2020, his victory was in Madison, Milwaukee and suburbs. The map was redder for Barnes. The racist GOP mailings and ads that falsely said Barnes was “soft” on crime hurt politically. I wish more Wisconsinites had listened to longtime Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth: “I don’t blame anybody for what happened (2020 Kenosha riot) except for the rioters who came. It’s campaign time right now. They’re (GOP) looking to discredit someone” (Beth supported Trump in 2020).

But no matter how you slice it, Wisconsin Democrats have a rural problem. They had no candidates for two U.S. House seats and none “in five state Senate races and 16 Assembly races” (MJS). A party without a farm team in rural Wisconsin has a dim future. However, Senator Baldwin has figured out how to bridge a divided and polarized Wisconsin. In 2018, she flipped seventeen counties that Trump won in 2016. Baldwin’s first-rate personality and impressive work ethic go a long way. She goes all over the state listening and outlining the benefits of federal legislation for regular folks.

Many Obama to Trump voters are in play if the effort is made. I asked Rebecca Cooke, Democratic primary candidate in Wisconsin’s third congressional district, for her take on making inroads in rural Wisconsin: “Rural counties are primarily made up of working class folks. The people who fuel our manufacturing lines, serve our morning coffee and raise our dairy herds. We need to recruit candidates from these sectors who authentically connect with all constituents, not just liberal folks. … It’s not enough to go to county party meetings and meet the same 20 folks. To win in rural communities we need to foster relationships at the county fair, attend church pancake breakfasts and swing through local fish fry’s. (We have) to hear from everyday people. … (And,) start early.”

Cooke is the future of Wisconsin Democrats.

Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C., for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 – 2009.

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