Historic Wisconsin Primary again in spotlight

This year, for the first time in 24 years, Wisconsin voters find themselves in the spotlight as the nation watches the presidential primaries of both parties.  Many pundits say Tuesday’s primary may be a change-making primary election.

Until the 1980s, the Wisconsin primary was always one of the first in the country, being held in April, ahead of most other states.  As early as 1912 when the Republican Party was engaged in a truly revolutionary primary campaign, the Wisconsin primary was in a key decision-making role nationally. In that 1912 election, Wisconsin’s “Fighting Bob” La Follette shook up the Republican presidential nomination by throwing hit hat in the ring for the Republican nomination, in opposition to his long-time political friend, Teddy


Fighting Bob La Follette

Roosevelt, who was running on the so-called “Bull Moose” ticket for the Republican nomination. Also of the ballot was William Howard Taft who had been Teddy’s original pick to succeed him as president in 1908. So here we had in Wisconsin a fight going on between two progressive Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt, and Bob La Follette, against a moderately progressive Republican, the incumbent President Taft.

Wisconsin at that time was one of about six states to have presidential primaries.  It was a new process having been established first in 1905 in the state of Oregon.  Wisconsin followed soon after.  Wisconsin’s role as one of the first truly consequential primary states in each election year didn’t change until the 1980s when other states started jockeying to hold elections “first.”  Thus it was that Iowa became the first caucus state and New  Hampshire the first state to hold a direct presidential primary.

I had to smile this weekend at news reports of how Ted Cruz and John Kasich showed up at Milwaukee’s American Serb Memorial Hall for its legendary Friday fish fry, where the candidates go table-to-table to greet voters, most of whom are more dedicated to their fried fish than a candidate’s handshake.  It reminded me of the time in 1972 when they were four major candidates vying for the Democratic nomination that year. At that time I was the Milwaukee county chairman for Senator Hubert Humphrey.  His campaign staff had asked me to advise them on where to have the candidate show up during the weekend before the Wisconsin election, which was also Easter weekend.  We knew it very would be hard to find venues where anybody would show up to hear their words.  As I was the so-called resident expert on local politics, I suggested that the Friday fish fry at Serb Hall would be a natural. And so it happened all of the other candidates also showed up for the Friday fish fry.  Then the question came what shall we do for Easter Sunday and I suggested that we go to the zoo. It was a popular place for families after all.

Lo and behold what do you think happened?  All four presidential candidates in the Democratic Party showed at the zoo, hoping to gain a little bit of a soundbite on the local news channels.  It was a frigid day and unfortunately it appeared the media outnumbered the families.

So much for my campaign expertise.

In the 1960 election of President Kennedy, the Wisconsin primary played a critical role.  He narrowly won here, but the win showed he could beat a man who had been called “Wisconsin’s third senator.”  Hubert Humphrey was senator from neighboring Minnesota and a frequent visitor to the state; he had many friends among the Democratic party leadership.  Kennedy’s win led him to the eventual nomination and election as President.

John Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, as his campaign manager, literally lived in the state during the 30 days before the April primary.  In Theodore White’s outstanding history, “The Making of the President – 1960,” he describes how Kennedy began his campaign on a chilly March day in the old logging town of Mellen, standing alone and hatless on a windblown street.

The Wisconsin primaries in 1968 and 1972 helped to bring reforms to the Democratic Party.  In 1968, another Minnesota Senator, Eugene McCarthy easily won here as the “so-called” peace candidate who openly opposed US involvement in Vietnam.  Since the primary was held just days after incumbent President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from his re-election campaign and before Bobby Kennedy was on the ballot, the McCarthy win was not consequential in the eventual nomination.  Vice President Humphrey entered the


Campaign flyer for Eugene McCarthy candidacy in 1968

race, but declined to participate in primaries; he was content to accept establishment delegates.  Yet, the primary was important to show the strength of the more liberal, anti-war wing of the State’s Democrats.  A Gene McCarthy supporter, Don Peterson of Chippewa Falls, took over leadership of the State Democratic Party.  Humphrey, however, went on to win the nomination, but the disaffection of many anti-war voters may have resulted in the win by Richard Nixon.

Four years later, another leading critic of the War, Sen. George McGovern won the primary, beating out Hubert Humphrey, the candidate favored by most of labor at the time, Washington Sen. Henry Jackson and New York Mayor John Lindsay.  The turmoil of the primaries and the Democratic conventions prompted the party to reform itself, but taking away much of the power of the establishment Democrats.

The eventual nominations of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who narrowly beat out labor-endorsed Arizona Sen. Morris Udall, and Bill Clinton in 1992, who narrowly won over California Gov. Jerry Brown, all were made possible by the early wins in the Wisconsin primary.

This year, after a generation of being an “also ran” among the states holding primaries, Wisconsin voters again finding themselves in a key decision-making role.  While two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, though heavy leaders for their parties’ nominations, are still seeking to solidity their delegate totals.  Each of them, with their rivals, are said to be “make-or-break” positions.

The State’s labor movement, however, is no longer playing as strong a role in the primary process as it did in the past.  Nonetheless, in a situation where a few votes can sway a nomination, the role of working people and their unions can be critical.  – Ken Germanson, April 3, 2016



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