Wisconsin Democrats stress importance of 2024 election amid divisions over Israel-Hamas war

The specter of the Israel-Hamas war loomed at the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's annual convention as protesters were removed during a speech by US Sen. Tammy Baldwin

WisDems Chair Ben Wikler addresses the crowd during the Democratic Party of Wisconsin State Convention at the Potawatomi Casino Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis., on June 8, 2024 Anya van Wagtendonk/WPR

In an election year when Wisconsin Democrats are being leaned on to defend the the presidency and could plausibly gain power in the state Legislature for the first time in more than a decade, the party hammered a message of unity at its annual state convention in Milwaukee this weekend.

But amid calls to reelect President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, an issue that has dogged them both from members of their own party pervaded: the Israel-Hamas war.

The two-day event at the Potawatomi Casino Hotel in Milwaukee on Saturday and Sunday highlighted the critical role Wisconsin will play in national elections — and the tight margins that Democrats must fight to maintain — as they eye a coalition fraying over a war that has entered its ninth month.

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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, selected as the keynote speaker, laid out the electoral stakes for Democrats when speaking to reporters prior to the event.

“There is no question that 2024 is the most critical election this country has ever faced,” he said, adding Wisconsin “might be the most important state in the country for us to win.”

Protesters interrupted remarks by Baldwin Saturday evening to criticize her support for Israel, and on Sunday, delegates debated resolutions relating to a ceasefire in Gaza and the definition of antisemitism.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler alluded to the ongoing rift during his remarks to the convention Saturday night, calling the days since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and ensuing military violence a “heavy” time for many Democrats.

“Especially for the Jewish and Muslim communities in our state, and those following the heartbreaking news, this has been a tremendously challenging period,” he said. “However we see this conflict, let us honor the shared humanity of all who live there and all who live here and join together in condemning Islamophobia and antisemitism, and condemning hate and division, and praying for peace.”

Students hold a red banner that says in part "divest from occupation."
Pro-Palestinian protesters hold a banner in the Library Mall on Monday, April 29, 2024, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Throughout the weekend’s events, speakers consistently sought to draw a distinction between their platform and the priorities of the Republican Party led by former President Donald Trump.

Pritzker described Biden as a president who is “working to make progress.”

“On the other side, you have a guy who’s working to make bail,” Pritzker said. “Because there is no Republican Party anymore. There is Donald Trump, a convicted felon, and his cult of personality.”

In his keynote address, Pritzker said Midwestern Democrats would hold the keys to enacting victories for the party nationwide while being “Midwest nice to you while we Midwest beat you.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, center, speaks at a press conference alongside Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, left, and Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler, right, ahead of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin State Convention at the Potawatomi Casino Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis., on June 8, 2024. Anya van Wagtendonk/WPR

Speakers warn of second Trump term

Democrats stressed the importance of the year’s election in terms of both opportunity and risk. Victories for Democrats would offer a chance to enact priorities around issues like abortion access and Medicaid expansion, they argued, while another Trump presidency would threaten American democracy.

“Wisconsin Democrats — we know that we hold we hold the key to victory, and every path to victory runs through Wisconsin,” said Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said the election boils down to “the three B’s: Biden, Baldwin and blue majorities.”

“Biden gets it done. Trump gets felonies. It’s really as easy as that,” he said. “Trump divides our nation and divides us and damages our most foundational democracy.”

President Biden stands to the side of a podium as he speaks.
President Joe Biden stands to the side of the podium as he speaks Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, at Ingeteam Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Speakers took repeated swipes at Trump a week after the former president was found guilty in New York criminal court of falsifying business records in a hush money payout during his 2016 campaign.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley praised the Biden White House for investing in housing, mental health care and public transit.

“Meanwhile, what is this other guy up to? Let’s be honest. Trump has been in and out of courtrooms facing multiple criminal charges, and not doing a dang thing for Wisconsinites other than spewing lies and spreading hate,” he said. “And on top of all of that, he about to get convicted.”

Attendees applauded wildly when Rep. Pocan praised Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul for filing charges this week against three people involved in organizing false electors for Trump in 2020.

Rep. Mark Pocan
Lauren Victoria Burke/AP Photo

Democrats say new maps offer chance at legislative majorities

Democrats also hammered home the message that this year gives them an opportunity to gain power in the state Legislature, where Republicans have held lopsided majorities since 2011 and currently hold a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate.

Wisconsin’s old legislative maps were overturned in December, and Gov. Tony Evers approved new, more competitive maps earlier this year. Under those new district lines, Democrats are eyeing a potential Assembly majority and have a chance to chip away at the Republican majority in the Senate. With other Senate districts up for election in 2026, Democrats hope they could flip control of state government entirely.

Evers said Wisconsin Democrats could look to Illinois as an example of what liberal legislative majorities could accomplish.

“We’re going to work to end the decade of Republican control this November, and send the Democratic Legislature to Madison,” Evers said, telling party activists that single-party control would let Democrats expand Medicaid, fund paid family leave, and prioritize childcare access and abortion rights.

“And guess what? We’re going to legalize and tax marijuana like we do with alcohol, so that tonight’s keynote speaker, Gov. Pritzker, will stop razzing me about all the Wisconsin revenue we’re sending down to Illinois that he gets to spend,” Evers added, to applause.

Gov. Tony Evers shakes hands with attendees after speaking ahead of President Joe Biden on Wednesday, May 8, 2024, at Gateway Technical College in Sturtevant, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

In a statement, the state Republican Party argued Pritzker’s “Illinois-style” agenda would be harmful for Wisconsinites, citing Pritzker’s policies on taxes and immigration.

“The Wisconsin Democrats have sent a clear message with their choice of J.B. Pritzker as the keynote speaker at their convention. Their ultimate aim is to turn Wisconsin into Illinois by satisfying the demands of their out-of-state donors,” said Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesperson Matt Fisher. 

Wikler received big cheers when he referred to the new maps by taking a dig at Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochster, one of the architects of the old maps and the Legislature’s most powerful Republican.

“This year, after years in a democracy desert, parched by the heat of an unforgiving Robin Vos-shaped sun, we are reaching the oasis,” Wikler said.

Israel-Hamas issue looms

While most of the weekend gathering focused on other issues, there were stark reminders of the divisions among Democrats when it comes to the Israel-Hamas war.

Baldwin was describing her reelection campaign against Republican challenger Eric Hovde when fewer than a dozen pro-Palestinian protesters rose to their feet, one by one, criticizing her approach to the war. One called Baldwin a genocide enabler, and another shouted, “Shame!”

Each was escorted out without incident as other attendees chanted “Tammy” to cover up the protests. Baldwin continued her remarks as the demonstrators were removed, focusing on domestic issues and painting her opponent as out-of-touch.

The issue of the Israel-Hamas war emerged again Sunday morning as delegates debated parts of the party platform.

Democrats passed a resolution calling for “immediate, unconditional ceasefire” in the region, after debate about removing the word “genocide” from a description of the violence in Gaza. Another resolution supporting the removal of Israel’s president from leadership was not adopted.

A security guard stands watch as pro-Palestinian protesters interrupt a speech by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, during the Democratic Party of Wisconsin State Convention at the Potawatomi Casino Hotel in Milwaukee, Wis., on June 8, 2024. Anya van Wagtendonk/WPR

Delegates also adopted a resolution to condemn antisemitism, but removed a line that cited data from the Anti-Defamation League. Some argued that organization conflates criticism of Israel with other forms of antisemitism. The resolution, as passed, says the state party condemns “discrimination against, and intolerance of, any person based on their religious, ethnic or cultural identity” and supports a Biden plan to counter antisemitism.

The issue has haunted Biden’s reelection campaign, as his party stands divided on his handling of the conflict, which erupted after Hamas militants crossed into Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking hostages. Nearly 35,000 Palestinians have bene killed by Israeli military actions since, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, including hundreds killed during an effort to free several Israeli hostages this weekend. An Associated Press analysis indicates under 40 percent of recent Palestinian deaths have been women and children, and the Israeli military says it is targeting Hamas fighters.

According to recent Reuters polling, nearly half of Democrats disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republicans criticized Baldwin — the subject of pro-Palestinian protests — as being insufficiently supportive of Israel.

“When will Baldwin stand up to the radical fringe Democrats and support Jewish Wisconsinites?” said Tate Mitchell, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks at a podium.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin addresses attendees prior to President Joe Biden’s speech Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, at Ingeteam Inc. in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Party leaders tout organizational strength, urge unity

Despite the challenges facing Democrats in 2024, Wikler promoted the state party’s organizational prowess as a sign that the battleground Badger State would stay in Biden’s column.

“The striking thing is that given how central Wisconsin is to this presidential election, Trump and the Republican campaigns have hardly shown up in this state at all,” he said.

According to Wikler, about 150 national and state Democratic Party staffers are working across the Wisconsin, from 47 offices in 43 counties.

Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said that highlights a difference between the two major parties’ commitment to ordinary people, and indicated that message would be highlighted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago later this summer.

“The differences between our parties are very stark. Our party is a party of hope. Their party is a party of fear,” said Harrison.

“At the Republican National Convention, we will see the dark reality of a second term under Donald Trump,” he added.

President Donald Trump speaks at a podium
President Donald Trump speaks during an event on judicial appointments, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

In her speech Saturday night, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, referred to the rift within the party and low enthusiasm for Biden even among his base.

She aimed her remarks especially at Black voters — among whom, polling indicates, support for Biden has waned — and those disenchanted with his handling of the war in Gaza.

Moore argued a vote for Trump would mean a return to the days of Jim Crow, and entrench right-wing leadership in Israel.

“How could anyone vote for a third-party candidate and effectively vote for Donald at such a time as this?” she said. “And worse, how could millions of people just sit on the sidelines in defeat and sit this election out?”