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Blue The Nation | August 28, 2014

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The Wisconsin Election Everyone Forgot to Notice

The Wisconsin Election Everyone Forgot to Notice
Jonathan Nathan

We all thought the Wisconsin question was settled. Republican Governor and general supervillain Scott Walker survived his recall election comfortably if not commandingly. Republicans hold 59 of 99 seats in the state Assembly, while the Democrats can claim only 39, with three seats vacant. Things are less bleak in the state Senate, but the GOP holds 18 of 33 seats–an improvement over their standing prior to the 2012 election, at which time Democrats held a slim one-seat majority. In 2012, Wisconsin voters reaffirmed their support of Scott Walker, made no changes to the state Assembly, and handed control of the state Senate back to the Republicans. The majority of the state’s delegates to the House of Representatives are Republicans, as is Ron Johnson, the man who unseated longtime Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold. The Wisconsin question, it would seem, is settled.

Only it isn’t. 53% of Wisconsinites voted for an openly gay Democrat, Tammy Baldwin, to be their new Senator. Despite heavily gerrymandered district maps which should favor a more strongly Republican contingent from the state in the House, only five of the state’s Representatives are from the GOP, and only two of the Democrats who lost their bids to challenge Republican incumbents in 2012 were seriously embarrassed by the final outcome. And the same 53% of Wisconsin voters who elected Tammy Baldwin voted for Barack Obama for President. The Republicans may have the upper hand, but the battle for the soul of Wisconsin is not over, and the Democrats are not losing it that badly.

All of this is what lends an otherwise relatively insignificant election an outsized degree of meaning. In years gone by, the world outside of Wisconsin would have rightly ignored the contest between Tony Evers and Don Pridemore for the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction. After all, how important could the head of the state’s school board really be to someone in, say, New Mexico, or California? Perhaps education policy wonks might have been interested, but even they might have been hard-pressed to care too much. And who could blame them? There are more pressing matters in the world.

And by and large, nobody did notice. I certainly didn’t. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, much less an election to decide the officeholder in 2013. I chanced upon it the other day during a casual perusal of Ballotpedia, and when I looked more deeply in what had been at stake, I was surprised.

For years, the election for Superintendent of Public Instruction has been apolitical and nonpartisan. Wisconsinites seem to hold a rather refreshing view on such elections. They are intentionally scheduled to occur at an unconventional time–April–in years not associated with Presidential elections, midterm elections, or any major statewide elections, such as 2013. The idea is that doing so removes a lot of the party-line inflammations that could otherwise contaminate the process, allowing the people of Wisconsin to vote dispassionately for this important office.

Leave it to the Republican Party and its operatives to try and poison the well. Backed by the same people who were behind the rise of Scott Walker, the formation of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the genesis of the Tea Party, and dozens of other modern political tragedies, a brashly and openly conservative Republican named Don Pridemore emerged as the sole challenger to Tony Evers. Although the election was, as always, officially non-partisan, everyone knew where Pridemore, a GOP member of the Assembly since 2005, stood. There are usually many challengers to a Superintendent, but this time everyone else kept their distance, knowing they couldn’t compete with Koch Brother money.

The race centered around Governor Walker’s proposal to privatize education by moving to a voucher system, designed to weaken the public schools. It’s a boilerplate Republican tactic to destroy the social safety net and the various services that Americans rely upon. Pridemore, naturally, supported Walker’s plan. Evers, who has never been known as much of a political firebrand, did not. In fact, he proposed to expand education funding by $225 per student, a defiant spit in the face to the Republicans controlling the Legislature and the Governor’s seat.

Pridemore denounced the new so-called “common core standards” which are sweeping the nation–and fair play to him, those standards do deserve some scrutiny. But his reasoning was pathetically predictable for a conservative Republican: He claimed they were developed by a shadowy international organization determined to “dumb down America.” (One wonders why they’d need to make the effort, if current appraisals of our education system are to be believed.) Pridemore also proposed positioning gun-toting vigilante volunteers in schools as a safety measure. Again, Evers obviously opposed him on this.

In short, this election, which should have been about much wonkier and much more boring matters of education policy and administration, became very much a referendum on the entire conservative agenda. Pridemore found ways to include privatization of social services, weakening labor unions, conspiracy theories about the United Nations, the obliteration of gun control, and cutting the public budget.

The results were very encouraging for a progressive. Tony Evers won in a landslide with 61% of the vote. Governor Walker and his accomplices in the legislature had hoped for a new ally and collaborator at the head of the state’s education institutions. They were denied.

61%. That’s a massive rejection of the state’s conservative forces. One wonders if perhaps Wisconsinites are already having a bit of buyer’s remorse over their choices in 2012, when they handed control of their state over to the Republican Party and its ultra-conservative right wing. Things have not gone well in the state under this regime. Perhaps the voters are finally wising up.