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Wisconsin Democrats rally around high stakes for 2024, struggle with unity on Israel-Palestine


Wisconsin Democrats rally around high stakes for 2024, struggle with unity on Israel-Palestine

Jun 10, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Baylor Spears
Wisconsin Democrats rally around high stakes for 2024, struggle with unity on Israel-Palestine
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler speaks at the party's 2024 state convention. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Wisconsin Democrats laid out sizable goals for fall elections at their state convention over the weekend — securing a path to victory for President Joe Biden, reelecting Sen. Tammy Baldwin against a self-funded Republican challenger, competing in every U.S. House race in the state for the first time in years and flipping seats in the hopes of getting a majority in the state Legislature.

Inside the convention at the Potawatomi Casino Hotel in Milwaukee, the party’s resounding message was that the “stakes are high” for this year’s federal and state elections: protecting freedom, especially reproductive rights, and defeating “MAGA-extremism.” The convention comes a month before the city will host the Republican National Convention and five months ahead of the critical November elections. 

While the convention seemed united on most fronts, the party grappled with disagreements over Israel’s ongoing war with Hamas, estimated to have killed over 34,000 Palestinians. The conflict could have an impact on upcoming elections as Biden, Baldwin and other Democrats have faced repeated protests against the war over the last several months.

Fighting against ‘MAGA-extremism,’ for freedoms

“We’re going to win this November,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Ben Wikler said at a press conference Saturday afternoon, one of several opportunities Democrats took to draw clear distinctions between their party and Republicans.

Throughout the convention, state leaders, party members and other speakers repeatedly took jabs at former President Donald Trump — and his recent conviction on 34 felony counts — while bragging about the record of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on an array of issues, including investing in infrastructure and bringing jobs to Wisconsin.

There is no Republican party, said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the convention keynote speaker who will also host the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. 

“There is Donald Trump, a convicted felon, and his cult of personality. The party of Trump is hellbent on attacking Americans,” Pritzker said at Saturday’s press conference. “It’s the felonious Trump party that’s spreading false conspiracy theories about voter fraud, undermining our democracy and claiming they won in Wisconsin in 2020 — claims, by the way, that just landed three of Trump’s Wisconsin minions with criminal charges.”

Wisconsin Democrats rally around high stakes for 2024, struggle with unity on Israel-Palestine
There is no Republican party, said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, at a press conference. Pritzker was the convention keynote speaker and will also host the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan said Democrats need to work towards delivering the three Bs: “Biden, Baldwin and blue majorities.” He said Wisconsin could help win back a majority in the U.S. House by unseating some of his Republican colleagues: Rep. Bryan Steil in the 1st Congressional District, where former Wisconsin Department of Revenue Secretary Peter Barca is running, and Rep. Derrick Van Orden, who Pocan called a “Trump fangirl,” in the 3rd Congressional District. Three Democrats — Rebecca Cooke, state Rep. Katrina Shankland and Eric Wilson — are running in the 3rd district primary. 

With “Fighting for Freedoms,” as the theme of the convention, speakers highlighted the future of reproductive rights in Wisconsin and the U.S. repeatedly on Saturday. The issue has remained a critical issue in Wisconsin. Abortion access only became available again recently after a Dane County judge ruled that an 1849 law did not ban abortion as had been assumed. That ruling is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Democrats are betting the issue will motivate voters in November at the same time as Republicans are having trouble uniting on a position. Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson recently called for Republicans to put aside their disagreements about abortion during the GOP state convention last month.

Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski outlined what she called the three-step playbook Trump and his allies are using: appoint right-wing judges, spread misinformation about women’s health and use the courts and misinformation to attack reproductive rights.

“Up next, access to birth control,” Godlewski said. “The MAGA Republicans that proudly killed Roe [v. Wade], they’re not going to protect our access to contraceptives.” 

New maps helped legislative recruitment across state

Gov. Tony Evers bragged about many state legislative accomplishments over the last two years including investments in affordable housing, the new stadium funding for the Milwaukee Brewers, his partial veto that extended funding increases for public schools for 400 years as well as the new maps adopted in Wisconsin.

“Democrats are getting s – – t done,” Evers said. It wasn’t the only cuss word he deployed.

“Fair maps are a BFD,” the governor said. “That means a big fine deal.”

State leaders emphasized the opportunity that Democrats have to win additional seats in the state Legislature under the new maps that the Republican-led Legislature passed and Evers signed this year after the state Supreme Court ruled that maps enacted in 2022 were unconstitutional.

With the new maps, the party recruited a record number of candidates. Democrats will have candidates running in 97 of 99 Assembly seats and in every Senate seat up for election this cycle. 

Democrats have said they can win the 15 more seats they need to take the majority in the state Assembly. While Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) was not in attendance, state Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) said she is ready to grow the club of Democrats who have flipped state Assembly seats.

Andraca noted that she was one of three Democrats to accomplish that in the last decade, joined by state Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) and now-Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez. 

“I slayed Wisconsin’s notorious gerrymander. I defeated a 14-year Republican incumbent and flipped the 23rd district in the Milwaukee and Ozaukee suburbs from red to blue,” Andraca said, adding that it wasn’t “easy or cheap.” In 2024, she said, Democrats “have an opportunity to flip, not just a few districts, but the entire Assembly.” 

Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) said that as Democrats run for the Senate across the state, they’ll be holding Republicans accountable. She said Democrats in the Senate are “energized” and “strong” and working towards building the path to a majority. 

“This is my promise to you. When we win the majority, we will defend our democracy and ensure every eligible voter has securely and safely cast their ballot. We’re going to protect reproductive freedom and expand Medicaid… We’re going to repeal Act 10,” Hesselbein said to the sound of loud applause. 

Israel-Palestine point of contention during Baldwin, resolutions

Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas was only mentioned a handful of times prior to Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s address to the convention. 

Party Chair Wikler addressed the conflict at the start of Saturday night’s session, saying that the “days have been heavy since Oct. 7th.” 

“We have members of the community who’ve lost friends and family members in the war that followed, especially the Jewish and Muslim communities in our state. This has been a tremendously challenging period,” Wikler said. “The vast majority of Democrats and Americans join President Biden in hoping to keep working towards a ceasefire, return of hostages, a flood of humanitarian aid [and] just enduring peace with safety, security, and self-determination for the Palestinians and Israelis alike.” 

Biden has been facing increasing criticism among some U.S. voters for the military support the U.S. has provided Israel, along with demands that he act to end the conflict. On May 31 Biden announced a three-phase ceasefire plan that he has urged Israel and Hamas to approve and commit to. 

While U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore said in her speech later in the evening that she supports young people’s opposition to the violence and the protests against it, she warned that a vote in November for someone other than Biden is “a vote for Donald Trump.” 

Moore referred to progressive-leaning voters who have threatened to abandon Biden in November over the issue. “A message to them should be that they need to imagine what the Middle East will look like if there’s another President Trump,” she said. “It will look more like [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s vision of the Middle East.”

When Baldwin took the stage, however, protestors in the convention hall took the opportunity to interrupt, calling for defunding the war in Israel and for a ceasefire. 

Wisconsin Democrats rally around high stakes for 2024, struggle with unity on Israel-Palestine
A pro-Palestinian protesters is escorted out during Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s address. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Pro-Palestinian protesters stood one at a time through about the first half of the senator’s speech, shouting, “Free Palestine” and calling the lawmaker a “disgrace.” Ignoring the protesters, Baldwin pushed through her speech as other convention delegates started chanting, “Tammy!” “Tammy!” “Tammy!” over the protesters. 

Speaking over protesters, Baldwin focused her remarks on knocking Republican challenger Eric Hovde for being a millionaire and his strong connections to California. About half a dozen protesters in total were quickly escorted from the room. 

In the latter half of her speech, Baldwin spoke about helping pass the Affordable Care Act as well as the 2022 Respect For Marriage Act, enshrining same-sex marriage rights into federal law. She also called attention to the loss of federal protections of abortion, noting that Hovde has previously said that he is 100% opposed to abortion. 

Wikler told reporters after the convention ended for the night that protesters had been organizing on social media. “It’s part of what happens in a democracy,” he said. He contrasted the brief interruption by and the small group of demonstrators with the hours that had led up to that point — when “we heard hundreds and hundreds of Democrats fired up and ready to go to work to elect Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.”

The Israel-Hamas war returned as a focal point Sunday, when delegates adopting the official party platform debated ceasefire and antisemitism-related proposals. 

The convention passed a ceasefire resolution despite a recommendation from party leaders against its adoption. The resolution states that 66 members of Congress have called for immediate ceasefire in Gaza, that over 28,000 Palestinians have been killed and that “the collective punishment of Palestinians is an egregious violation of humanitarian law” and, according to South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice, constitutes genocide.

Heba Mohammad, who helped organize the “uninstructed vote” in Wisconsin’s April presidential primary that garnered 48,000 votes, said it was an “undeniable moral imperative” that the party pass the resolution. She said that the Democrats who voted uninstructed laid out the map for Democrats and Biden to win back votes, and that the state party should show the administration the way. 

“I stand up here in support of this resolution as likely the lone Palestinian still in the WisDems because others have left the party. I don’t blame them when the party has been actively silent on the genocide of our people,” Mohammad said. “Passing a ceasefire resolution is common sense.” 

Some delegates sought to eliminate the word “genocide” from the resolution, but that effort failed.

The convention also passed a resolution condemning antisemitism and voted to include language condemning antisemitism in its official party platform. 

The resolution, which was submitted on behalf of the Jewish caucus, defined antisemitism as “a form of prejudice and discrimination against Jews that has a long and tragic history of violence, exclusion or cultural identity,” and also endorsed Biden’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. The resolution was amended to eliminate language that said that antisemetic incidents have “skyrocketed nearly 400%” since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Opponents of that language said the data, from the Anti-Defamation League, conflated antisemitism with criticism of Israel. 

Four other Israel and Palestine-related resolutions, including two that were ceasefire related, weren’t adopted.