John Colson: A light in Wisconsin’s political darkness

John Colson
Hit & Run

I have been closely watching political developments in Wisconsin, the state where I grew up (no jokes, please), and after months of anxiety, I’ve glimpsed some light in the political darkness of what is known to be one of the most gerrymandered states in the United States.

Just in case you are confused about the term “gerrymandered,” it is an anti-democratic (little “d”) device for suppressing votes to benefit one party over another, one that typically is much more effectively used by Republican operatives than by Democrats.

The method, for Republicans, say, is to use the decennial reapportionment prompted by the U.S. Census data (the redrawing of legislative districts, that is) to crowd as many Democrats as possible into the smallest possible number of wildly distorted districts, giving Republicans a majority of districts and effective political control even while they have a minority of voters (that’s an oversimplified description, but you can look it up to get further clarification).

And it’s true that Republicans have made better use of the gerrymander, mostly because Republican strategists have long understood that their party is in the minority on a national level.

As of last year, according to a national assessment of U.S. Census data, while the U.S. Senate was split 50-50 between the two major parties, Republican senators actually represent far fewer voters then their Democrat counterparts.

According to the assessment, by the Vox news organization, in the current U.S. Senate, Republicans represent just under 143,000 voters, while Democrats represent more than 184,000.

The use of gerrymandering, though, mainly affects elections of state legislators and U.S. members of Congress, creating a kind of electoral superiority where no numerical superiority exists.

In Wisconsin, which as I said above is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, this barely disguised form of political cheating has resulted in a remarkable turnaround for what once was a highly  progressive, liberal-leaning state. And this turnaround has happened in just the last half-century or so.

But even as political pundits depressingly declare that Wisconsin is descending into one-party rule for the next few decades if this trend continues, there may be some light showing in this dark tunnel.

For one thing, the state’s liberal lieutenant governor, a man named Mandela Barnes, this week went from being the front-runner in a field of five to being the only remaining candidate on the ballot. The cause was the unexpected departure of his four opponents from the field, who all quit and endorsed his candidacy over the past couple of weeks.

Polling data in the state puts Barnes ahead of his target, incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, by a margin of 46-44 points, which is kind of a tight thing but bodes well for Barnes’ chances in November, but Barnes supporters believe he will pull further ahead of Johnson over the coming weeks.

Naturally, Johnson has already opened a blistering attack on Barnes and can be expected to benefit from a rising tide of out-of-state money from Johnson’s party and his corporate supporters.

I’ve been paying close attention to Wisconsin politics because, for one thing, I grew up there and was once proud of the state’s progressive stands on most issues, at least until the state went (narrowly) for Donald Trump in 2016.

Thankfully, Wisconsin switched sides in 2020 and went, just about as narrowly, for President Joe Biden, although Trump of course has put Wisconsin front and center in his cynical, anti-democratic tactic known as The Big Lie — his contention that electoral fraud gave the win to Biden, and that he (Trump) really is still our president.

My soon-to-be resumptive home state (I’m moving back to Wisconsin a little later this year, largely for family-related reasons) remains a politically troubled place, but I’m hopeful that I can do something to help turn things around once I get there.

Unfortunately, the state supreme court is dominated by right-wing jurists, the state Legislature (again, thanks to gerrymandering) is firmly in the hands of the Republican Party, and the cult of Trump continues to hold entirely too much sway in the rural parts of the state.

But, hey, I’ve always been up for wading into the political fray wherever I’ve lived, and this will be no different.

Sure, call me overly optimistic, or label me a political Pollyanna, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.