EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a progressive Democrat seeking reelection next year in a Rust Belt state won by President Trump, knows what she is up against. Republicans hold their strongest statehouse majority in decades here, and hundreds of small communities flipped to Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2012.
Then there’s Gov. Scott Walker (R), who fires volleys of accusatory tweets at Baldwin and appears likely to seek a third term, putting polar opposites on the same ballot in November 2018.
Baldwin’s answer is to echo the hard-luck economic message that propelled the candidacies of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), assert a Democratic vision that takes account of the little guy — and outwork all prospective challengers.
“The common thread is economic populism and how we get ahead,” Baldwin said here after a public discussion of prescription drug pricing. “It’s just that Walker and Trump pit one group of Americans against another, rather than taking on the real villains.”
Baldwin is one of 10 Democrats defending Senate seats next year in states won by Trump. Their races are critical to the party’s hopes of overcoming a 52-48 GOP Senate majority in a year when only nine Republican-held seats are in play. They are betting on Trump’s unpopularity and the midterm bounce that typically goes to the party out of power in the White House.
Races in Wisconsin and across the country will test Democratic messaging and the party’s ability to harness anti-Trump energy evident in the Jan. 21 women’s marches, as well as protests at Republican town hall meetings and opposition to GOP efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and social programs that help blue-collar Americans.
Baldwin, for one, is also learning from mistakes that helped make Hillary Clinton the first Democratic presidential nominee to lose Wisconsin in 32 years. She aims to rebuild the 2012 coalition that first got her elected to the Senate, including farmers and working-class voters who turned to Trump. No prominent Republican has yet entered the Senate race to challenge her.
“The intensity flipped on Nov. 9. The light switch went on our side,” said Rep. Ron Kind, a moderate Democrat whose western Wisconsin district includes Eau Claire. “The best thing that happened to Tammy’s reelect was Trump winning the White House. All the focus is on them now, and their agenda and how bad it is and what a rough start they’re off to.”
Election Day is still 19 months away in an administration where “a week is a lifetime,” said Wisconsin Conservative Digest editor and Trump supporter Bob Dohnal.
“If the economy is doing well, that will help Republicans across the board,” said GOP political consultant Bill McCoshen, ex-chief of staff to former governor Tommy Thompson, who lost to Baldwin in 2012.
Yet Republicans must live up to their promises and show they can govern, McCoshen added. “If they can’t get things done, they’re probably going to be sent home.”
Baldwin, 55, covered more than 1,300 miles on Wisconsin roadways in the past three weekends, holding events in 13 towns. A veteran of almost 20 years in Washington and six years in the state legislature, she emphasizes themes familiar to many working-class voters who supported Trump and gave Sanders a 13-point victory over Clinton in the April 2016 primary.
She talks of a policy of “buy American” when it comes to purchasing such goods as steel and paper. She calls for improvements in trade deals and advocates measures to make prescription drugs less expensive. Voters, she said in an interview, “need me standing up to [corporations], not allowing them to rig the rules.”
“We’re fighting for a whole series of policies that would make a true difference and a direct difference in people’s lives,” she said. “And you can’t just assume people know that.”
At a recent White House reception, Baldwin told Trump she wants to work with him on a buy American policy. His answer? “I know he said the word ‘great’ several times,” she laughed. “It was encouraging.”
After losing the 2016 primary, Clinton did not return to Wisconsin. In November, she received 238,449 fewer votes than Obama did four years earlier. Trump received about 3,000 fewer votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012, but defeated Clinton by 22,748 votes.
Compounding the Democrats’ dismay, Sen. Ron Johnson, a conservative GOP incumbent seen as vulnerable, beat former senator Russ Feingold (D) by 100,000 votes, and Republicans achieved historic dominance in the state legislature. Walker, meanwhile, has won three consecutive statewide elections.
The reeling state party held an 11-stop listening tour and added seven staffers. Five are regional organizers, one is a statewide organizing coordinator and one is a staff member assigned to connect with communities of color. They will listen to voters, support fledgling grass-roots groups, argue an affirmative case for Democrats and help recruit down-ballot candidates.
Beyond wooing voters who voted Republican, Democrats are seeking to channel the anti-Trump energy of Eau Claire residents like Bill Hogseth, who knocked on hundreds of doors for Obama in 2008, but felt “very uninspired” by Clinton and sat on the sidelines in 2016.
After Trump won, Hogseth concluded that he needed to act. He looked ahead 15 years and imagined how he would answer questions from his children, now 5 and 3.
“I didn’t want to tell my kids, ‘Well, I was busy,’ ” said Hogseth, a wildlife biologist for the state of Wisconsin. “I wanted to say I carved out time in my life to be part of the resistance.”
Hogseth read “from front to back” a political manual written by a group of former congressional aides called the Indivisible, and he started a Facebook group. “In a few weeks, it went from me to 1,500 people,” he said.
The group started monitoring Wisconsin’s federal lawmakers, including Baldwin. They hand-wrote and delivered 80 letters to Johnson demanding the release of Trump’s tax returns, and they’re planning a three-hour training session on political organizing.
“Not just to move the needle on the Trump administration, but this is an opportunity to pull more people into political engagement because they’re terrified. Show them what citizenship means,” said Hogseth, who calls the effort “coordinated citizenship.”
Hogseth joined a meeting with Baldwin arranged by Becca Cooke, a former Democratic fundraiser who recently opened an Eau Claire shop called Red’s Mercantile. Cooke created The 715 Group, named for the local area code, to push progressive policies, in part by pooling donations from young voters.
The 35 members of Cooke’s group, who range in age from “21 to 40-ish,” pledge to contribute $75, $125 or $250 per quarter for two years. The beneficiary of the first $6,000 was Baldwin.
“It’s important that we keep her there,” Cooke explained. “In a big city this might be small beans, but it’s an approachable way for people to pledge. And committing for the two-year cycle keeps people engaged.”
At the annual Eau Claire Democratic Party dinner, Kind said Democrats must find a candidate to beat Walker and make sure that Baldwin wins, because “they will be gunning for her.”
When it was Baldwin’s turn, she spoke about the “dignity of work” and offered details of her economic agenda. She said she takes heart from Progressive Party leader Robert M. La Follette’s defiance of the robber barons a century ago. La Follette was a Wisconsinite, and when Baldwin reached the Senate, she requested his old desk.
Mindful that political energy waxes and wanes, Baldwin asked the 180 people in the audience not to treat their activist vows like a New Year’s resolution, where you pledge to run five days a week and by April 1 can’t even find your running shoes.
“You have to see it through. This is not something you can participate in only occasionally,” Baldwin said. “Stick with it.”
They gave her a standing ovation.