Wisconsin has a proud conservationist tradition stretching back to John Muir, father of the United States' national parks. Yet in recent years Republican policymakers have tailored state law and policy to suit powerful interests that pollute Wisconsin's air and water. (They've also used extreme gerrymandering to fortify their control of the Legislature against the loss of a majority of voters.) 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. (I passed along the gavel in June 2021 to a close partner in the effort rather than run for a third term.)
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 range of issues across the state's different regions. 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 help candidates devise winning strategies and messages.
Again, the extreme gerrymandering of Wisconsin's legislative district maps is the Badger State’s key political fact. In the 2018 midterms, the 54% of votes garnered by Democratic Assembly candidates 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 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—described more fully in Kathleen Sullivan and my post for the rural affairs site the Daily Yonder—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 near factory farms and experienced the polluted well water and unbearable smell. This pointed us to that staple of elections: short video ads.
By a stroke of luck, the videographer who helped me with my first city council campaign, Eric Peterson, had made several videos about the fight against factory farms. Going through his footage looking for clips matching our messaging strategy, I found four of Eric’s subjects who agreed to appear in a partisan ad. Lynda Cochart of Lincoln, Wisconsin (pictured right) made the key point: struggling small farmers aren’t the source of the problem. The next lucky break came when the Wausau-based ad agency 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.”
In July 2020, the caucus held a webinar for 17 Democratic candidates for the Wisconsin Legislature, with many of them affirming that the mega-farm pollution threat could indeed help their outreach to undecided voters. Then in the final months of the 2020 campaign, the Caucus leaders worked with G. Morty & the Makers on a digital advertising buy targeting two key State Senate races.