Most describe a mood of cautious optimism. Democrats in Wisconsin maintain a tight but narrow lead in the governor’s race, seem to be runningaway with the Senate race, and even feel they have an outside shot at the seat of the outgoing House speaker, Paul Ryan, in which Racine sits. Things look good. But they have been here before.
Most progressives here have a story of waking up the morning after election day two years ago to find Wisconsin had not only voted Republican for the first time in more than 30 years – it had voted for Donald Trump. For many it changed what they felt about the state they had lived in all their lives. “I remember being in public spaces and looking around and thinking, ‘Which of these white people voted for that crazy person who hates everything that I am?’” said Cruz.
To understand the source of their caution one has to go back further. Eight years ago, in the wake of the financial crisis, Walker was elected governor and almost immediately sought to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions and cut local government workers’ health benefits and pension entitlements in order to balance the budget. “Wisconsin was a testing ground for some extreme Republican policies,” explained Forrest. “Organisations like Alec [a rightwing lobbying group] and people like the Koch brothers wanted to use Wisconsin to see how far they could go.”
The energy from the Madison protests was poured into an effort to recallWalker – a provision some states have for effectively demanding a revote. But Walker not only beat off the recall, he was returned with a larger majority and then re-elected in 2014. Then came Trump’s victory in 2016.
So the caution arises not simply from not winning, but having felt the camaraderie of mass protest only to be followed by electoral defeat: it’s not just the depths to which things have fallen but the heights from which the mood fell. So in Wisconsin particularly, when they see four of the five of the largest marches in American history take place in the last two years and sense increased enthusiasm they don’t assume that this will translate into a blue wave. They’re not jaded. But they are reflective.