Democrats in Wisconsin’s rural county parties are confronting challenges endemic to those in all of rural America – sparse and aging membership, limited funds, and sporadic access to technology. This in turn can create low morale among rural county party chairs who sometimes feel abandoned, that “out here, we’re on our own.”
At 33% rural, the Badger State is the nation’s most clearly divided one politically – four of the last six presidential elections have been decided by less than 1 percentage point. A new report shows why Wisconsin was such a 2020 battleground and why it will remain one going forward. And in 2022, voters will determine if controversial Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson gets a third term (if he runs) and if Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, is re-elected to a second term.
To improve Democratic performance in the rural counties, the Rural Caucus of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (DPW) has launched a new initiative called Power Up Rural WI to strengthen county parties through a community coordinator network.
“The biggest challenge is changing people’s thinking because we can’t do what you’ve always done,” explained Nate Timm, Rural Caucus chair of the DPW. “People are not hopeful in rural parts of the country — they’ve not been paid attention to for years. They lose and then they lose again,” he said, summarizing the resentment that has allowed Republicans in the Trump era to run up the score in the hinterlands.
To address the reality that a third of county chairs turn over annually and that rural Democrats often feel intimidated by their Republican neighbors’ signs and discourse, the DPW is building a network of community coordinators to serve as allies between small towns and the county Democratic party, help coordinate sign distribution by identifying locations and distributing signs and disseminating information on issues and candidates through letters to the editor, social media and radio.
Timm is passionate about yard signs, so don’t give him the old trope that “signs don’t vote – people do” or you may get a tongue lashing from the retired social studies teacher. Timm knows how critical it is for yard signs to be placed in rural communities where local Republican networks from the NRA and Farm Bureau to newer right-wing super PACs hold tremendous sway with local opinion. “One significant achievement was to change the DPWs focus on signs,” he said, recalling a September 2021 picnic in Waushara County where Timm presented Governor Evers with a homemade placard and bent his ear on the need for massive sign distribution.
“On his way home he told his communications director ‘I’ve gotta have yard signs,’ ” Timm noted, adding that this will be the “first time a Democratic governor has ever had a signage plan for the state.” The goal is 60,000 signs to be deployed next year in waves in May, June and August with the DPW’s political director taking over from commercial shippers to do the deliveries into six hub areas across the state.
To date, community coordinators have been brought on in two Driftless area counties in the southwestern corner of the state, three counties in northeast Wisconsin and a quartet of red counties in the middle of the state. “Ten percent of all new rural voters in Wisconsin came out of our four counties (Adams, Green Lake, Marquette and Waushara) so we’re doing something right,” said Bill Crawford, vice chair of the Waushara County Democratic Party.
In Marinette County, the local party has run spots on local radio stations and Crawford said “we still do canvassing where we give out little pocket booklets of the U.S. Constitution stamped with ‘Compliments of the Waushara County Democratic Party’ on the back.”
Timm and Crawford are optimistic that these multi-county collaborations will help share information and strategies for dealing with issues such as sulfide mining, well water quality, CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and that larger crowds will be available for events in a multi-county group as well as reducing the burnout of county chairs.
“I don’t see any reason why this template can’t be applied in other rural areas,” said Timm.
Matt L. Barron is a rural strategist and runs MLB Research Associates.