Wisconsin has a proud conservationist tradition stretching back to John Muir, father of America's national parks. Yet in recent years Republican policymakers have turned state law and policy toward powerful interests that pollute Wisconsin's air and water. (Extreme gerrymandering has helped the GOP keep both houses of the Legislature despite losing the popular vote.) The Republican abandonment of good natural resource stewardship gives Democratic candidates a chance to sway voters who haven't fully reckoned with the GOP tilt in favor of polluters. In early 2017 I began building a statewide network of Party leaders to make that case, and we were constituted as a caucus within Wisconsin Democratic Party—with me as chair—at the 2018 state convention.
At the next year's convention, the Caucus successfully pushed a party platform resolution calling on Democratic candidates at all levels to campaign on environmental issues—though we purposely didn't specify any particular issues in a nod to the state's diverse regions and the different issues they face. But above all, we didn't want to merely enact a mandate on candidates. We're committed to being engaged and putting our heads together to figure out winning strategies and messages. The job of our Caucus is to help our candidates, partiularly in swing Assembly and Senate districts, run and win on the most salient issues.
Again, the extreme gerrymandering of Wisconsin's legislative district maps is the Badger State’s key political fact. In the 2018 midterm elections, the
family farms with which so many rural voters identify. As I put it in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, “The real problem doesn’t come from the vast majority of dairy farms or hog farms. The bad actors hide behind the good ones.”
The discussions with party leaders in rural areas also served as an informal workshop on messaging. We looked for ways to help rural voters see mega-farms for what they are: bad corporate neighbors that maximize profits by pushing the burden of pollution onto the local community. A key piece of advice was to feature the personal testimony of people who’ve lived
54% of votes Democratic Assembly candidates received yielded them just 36% of the seats. The only way for Democrats to win control of the Legislature, therefore, is to sway voters who usually back Republicans. Most of the swing districts have sizable rural populations, and the advice we got from local Party leaders on a Summer 2019 listening tour steered us to the issue of pollution from oversized industrial dairy and hog farms.
For their part, Republican candidates count on keeping the upper hand by equating any crackdown on agricultural pollution with being “anti-farmer.” In response, the Environmental Caucus has highlighted the largest operations that generate unmanageable levels of waste—stressing the difference between such factory farms versus the traditional
near factory farms and experienced the polluted well water and unbearable smell. With that in mind, the best way to demonstrate the issue's political resonance seemed to be through that staple of elections: short video ads.
As luck would have it, the videographer who helped me with my first city council campaign, Eric Peterson, had made several videos about the fight against factory farms. I went through Eric’s footage and picked out clips that lined up with the Caucus' messaging strategy. Four people from Eric’s videos consented to appear in a partisan ad, including Lynda Cochart of Lincoln, Wisconsin (above), who made the key point likely to resonate with target voters: struggling small farmers aren’t the source of the problem. The next lucky break came when the Wausau-based ad agency
CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO SEE THE ENVIRONMENTAL CAUCUS' VIDEO AD
G. Morty & the Makers offered to edit the clips into two two-minute videos. The tag line of the ads sums up the Environmental Caucus’ main pitch to voters: “Vote to send representatives to Madison to protect communities, not polluters.”
Caucus leaders are planning a modest digital advertising buy to put the videos in front of voters, but mainly we work to achieve change by helping candidates be persuasive advocates of natural resource conservation. In mid-July, the caucus held a webinar for 17 Democratic candidates for the Wisconsin Legislature (right), with
many of them affirming that the mega-farm pollution threat could indeed help their outreach to undecided voters. In the final months of the 2020 campaign, Caucus members will offer ongoing support to candidates. The Caucus hopes our materials, training, and encouragement for candidates help them win in November.