In Chris Larson’s victory, a reverse-tea-party maneuver

In a surprising upset, a conservative Democratic state senator from a Milwaukee, Wisc. suburb was ousted in Tuesday’s primary election—not by someone running to the right, but rather, from the left. It amounts to a reverse-tea-party maneuver. Challenger Chris Larson won the race by 22%, receiving 7,962 votes to incumbent Jeff Plale’s 5,148, a 61%-39% difference.

Larson won election to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in 2008 after beating me and two other candidates. Announcing his candidacy on June 10, Larson called out Plale for killing the Clean Energy Jobs Act in the Wisconsin state legislature. Mailers—mostly from independent 527 groups—linked Plale to big contributions from big oil and coal companies. Sure enough, according to the state Government Accountability Board, the body that oversees Wisconsin elections, Plale took in thousands of dollars from energy company executives just in the last reporting cycle.

A remarkable ground game was one thing that made Chris Larson’s victory possible. Larson’s army of volunteers worked tirelessly from the state of the campaign. Larson was able to seize upon latent discontent about Plale within the district. Moreover, a hotly contested Republican gubernatorial primary made for a perfect political storm. Wisconsin’s primary elections are strictly partisan affairs, meaning that you can only vote for candidates from one party, but not another. Many conservative-leaning voters who had voted for Plale in previous years’ open general elections opted to vote for one of the Republican gubernatorial candidate, thus taking potential votes away from Plale. (At least one voter wanted to vote for both Chris Larson and Republican Scott Walker—a contradictory position, to say the least.)

While the intricacies of Wisconsin’s primary elections were vital to this win, it is thought that Larson would have won even without the assistance of the partisan primary. Environmentalists, labor people, and fans of clean, responsive government had enough of Plale’s antics. They voted en mass for change. That was what Larson touted, and with that, won the votes. Details aside, it is significant that a well-financed conservative Democrat was ousted by another Democrat who ran solidly to the left. Chris Larson surfed in the hard-right wind to achieve a victory and pulled off a reverse-tea-party trick. Now the Democratic candidate in Wisconsin’s 7th state senate district, Larson faces a Republican opponent in the November election. However, thanks to the district’s heavily Democratic makeup, the seat should remain in the Democratic column. Even the outgoing state senator thinks so, according to the last words in this article on the election.

James Rowen has a well-written analysis of the win.

And kudos to Jeff Plale for being gracious in defeat.

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Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.

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