Local issues hold the key to many midterm elections, despite all the talk about how President Donald Trump is nationalizing these races and Democrats should follow his lead and do the same. It's important to know that in many places, voters still care first about issues that affect them at home, more than the latest outrage coming from the White House.
One of those places is Wisconsin, where deep cuts to education by the incumbent Republican governor, Scott Walker, have put it at the top of many voters' priorities.
Wisconsin, which went for Trump in 2016, has been under Republicans' control in both legislative chambers and the governor's seat and mostly sends Republicans to the U.S. House. If a "blue wave" is truly to take place in November, it will have to include Democratic victories in Wisconsin. And it will have to include a new direction for education in the state.
"Education is either the top one or two issue in this election," says Matt Brusky, Deputy Director at Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Health care is Badger State residents' other top priority, he adds.
Brusky should know. He and and other members of this progressive grassroots group, part of the People's Action national network, have been going door to door across Wisconsin to canvass for candidates that support the group's Rise Up platform, an eight-year plan to move the state towards guaranteed comprehensive healthcare, environmental safeguards, criminal justice reform, and equality of educational opportunity.
When I called Brusky, he was gassing up his rental car after knocking doors in Fountain City, where locals are struggling with a school consolidation due to lack of funding from the state. "Education is usually a top issue in the state because of what Walker has done to it," he says. "Almost all candidates are running on it."
"It is moving to see how education has become a headline issue for the election," says Julie Underwood, a University of Wisconsin professor. "During the public hearings on the last budget, over 30 percent of the public comments had to do with public education, and there has been a focus on education issues in candidate forums and debates."
'An Arms Race Over Who Can Sound the Best'
The race between Walker, who was elected in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave that swept Wisconsin, and his opponent, long-time state schools chief Tony Evers, has become especially focused on education – "an arms race over who can sound the best," says Robert Kraig, Citizen Action of Wisconsin's Executive Director.
Under Walker’s leadership, the state has slashed education spending to levels below what they were in 2008 and redirected millions in education funds to private alternatives such as charter schools and voucher-funded private schools. Under his leadership, the state enacted Act 10 – a crackdown on teachers job protections' and collective bargaining rights – which has resulted in widespread teacher shortages and inexperienced staff. In contrast.
In contrast, Evers calls for a double-digit increase in school spending, a repeal of Act 10, limits on the state’s voucher programs, and increased financial transparency of private schools that receive voucher money.
Yet astonishingly, Walker claims he is the “education candidate” in the election, pointing to recent funding increases he signed, that despite their impressive sticker price, still provide less per pupil than in 2011, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
"Walker can try to pump up his education credentials, but the problem is he is a long-standing incumbent with a clear track record," says Kraig, "The fact he has done a lot to try to change his education profile is evidence, given his campaign's immense polling apparatus, the he must know the issue is causing people who voted for him in the past to vote against him this time."
"Clearly Tony Evers has the best grasp on the issues," says Underwood. "He has been a teacher, administrator, and state superintendent. He understands that public education is the heart of a community and critical for our democracy. Although Scott Walker claims to be an education governor, public education has been greatly damaged during his term."
'Public Schools Under Attack'
In down-ballot races, education issues diverge somewhat, depending on community characteristics. "In the suburbs," says Brusky, "most of the talk is about losing programs and the needs for holding local referendums" to shore up budgets. "Schools are getting crushed" In rural communities, he says, with many having to consolidate or close altogether.
The candidate who seems to have set the pace on education for other Democrats to follow is Marisabel Cabrera who ousted her incumbent opponent Josh Zepnick in a district on Milwaukee's south side in the Democratic primary. She does not face a Republican opponent in November.
Cabrera is an unabashed advocate for public schools, saying, "We continue to see our public schools under attack, and it's time to stand up and put an end to the takeovers, the cuts in funding, and the sale of public buildings to private interests."
In interviews and candidate debates, Cabrera explicitly opposed school privatization, while Zepnik expressed support for voucher programs.
Another down-ballot candidate, Julie Henszey, running as a pro-education candidate in State Senate District 5, says, "Schools still face class sizes that are too large, special education programs that are underfunded, and a lack of investment in art, music, libraries, and physical fitness … The trend has been to siphon millions of dollars in public money over to private schools through less accountable, and less successful, voucher schemes."
In addition to endorsing Evers, Cabrera and Henszey, Citizen Action of Wisconsin is also backing Jeff Smith, running for a state senate seat in the western part of the state that includes Eau Claire and many rural communities. Smith, who was elected to Wisconsin’s State Assembly in 2002 but was ousted in the 2010 Tea Party wave, got his start in politics as a public school parent activist, who served on a statewide education task force, then ran for office because he saw the need for funding schools.
Smith's platform calls for raising education funding back to previous levels, ending the state's "failed voucher school program," expanding early childhood education programs, and mandating universal kindergarten.
Democrats Have the Education Advantage
None of this is to say Trump is not a factor in Wisconsin midterms, or that Democrats are unified on education.
While Kraig can't personally attest to knowing many Wisconsin voters who voted for Trump and are now poised to vote Democratic, he hears secondhand accounts of voters flipping from Republican to Democrat and notices the enthusiastic reception Democratic candidates are getting in traditionally red parts of the state while rightwing campaign funders and groups, such as the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity, are investing heavily in areas where their candidates have easily won in the past.
And Democratic candidates in the state often present a muddled message on education issues, says Kraig. For instance, when Republican candidates threaten to remove insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions from the Affordable Healthcare Act, Democrats tend to rally around in unified opposition.
"Threats to insurance coverage of pre-existing conditions are a political third rail," Kraig argues, whereas, "we have not defined what a third rail would be in education." While Democrats have created a clear idea of what a pro-healthcare candidate is, according to Kraig, "we haven't created a clear perspective of what a pro-education Democrat is versus one who isn't."
Nevertheless, the impact education is having in Wisconsin's midterm races appears straightforward, given the record Walker and his Republican allies have of enacting historic cuts and their antipathy for teachers, and Democrats are at least united in opposition to that and are using their opposition to their advantage.
Recent polls show the face-off between Evers and Walker is a toss-up, and Democrats could win two more seats this election, just a 12 percent change, to gain a Senate majority and have a chance to win 15 House seats, representing a 15 percent gain, to have a majority in that chamber.