KENOSHA, Wis. — Tony Evers pulled off one of the Democratic Party’s biggest feats of 2018: ousting liberal villain Scott Walker after earlier attempts to take out the Wisconsin governor fell short.
But having one of their own atop the critical 2020 battleground isn’t turning out to be the boon that Democrats hoped or expected.
Evers, a longtime school administrator who’s prone to peppering his speech with “by golly” and “holy mackerel” — and who voters chose in part for his no-drama approach to politics — has been thrust into a cauldron of racial tension and violence. It’s an awkward fit for the subdued 68-year-old, and the reviews of his response to the turmoil in Kenosha — among other facets of his job performance — aren’t encouraging.
Evers is drawing heat from some in his own party for not moving quickly enough to tamp down rioting in Kenosha. Like Walker before him, Evers is facing a nascent effort to recall him from office. He’s been steamrolled by Republicans who dominate the legislature and have repeatedly blocked his initiatives, including police reform.
And while Evers is still above water in polls, his approval rating slid 6 points after his handling of the Kenosha unrest.
Democrats say it’s obviously better to have Evers at the helm than Walker heading into November — if nothing else, to protect against what they said would have been an assault on voting access if Republicans controlled both legislative chambers and the governorship.
But interviews with more than two dozen activists, strategists, local officials and voters surfaced serious concern that in such a pivotal year, in such a pivotal state, Evers is diminishing what should be a significant advantage for the party. Rather than act as an attack dog or savvy politico who helps amplify Joe Biden’s message to combat President Donald Trump, they say, Evers instead has allowed Republicans to cast him as weak and ineffective.
“I don’t think that he has his pulse [on] what is going on in this state. He doesn’t have a forceful personality. He doesn’t have, in my view, the qualities of a great leader and that’s what we need now,” said Terry Rose, a former county supervisor and Democratic Party chair in Kenosha County. “We need a Winston Churchill, not a Neville Chamberlain.”
Democratic infighting in Wisconsin broke out in April, when Evers initially refused to call for a postponement of the primary election just as the pandemic was blossoming. When he finally did ask for a delay, Republicans shut him down.
That’s how most of Evers’ clashes with state Republicans have gone: GOP legislators gavel in a special session he’s called, then they ignore his proposals or file lawsuits to block him with the conservative-led state Supreme Court.
Numerous Democrats complained in interviews that Republicans are running roughshod over Evers, including during the Covid-19 crisis.
“Is he governing? Because it doesn’t feel like it,” said one Democratic party activist, who requested anonymity to express his frustrations with Evers candidly.
Control of Wisconsin’s governorship has provided an edge to Democrats in the past. Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, recounted in an interview how his political machine helped John Kerry and Barack Obama carry the state in 2004 and 2008, respectively.
“In both of those elections it was really my political organization that was kind of at the heart of where most of the work was done — most of it was ground work,” Doyle said.
That’s not going to happen this time. Whatever power a governor’s political operation might have supplied in 2020 is greatly diminished, Doyle said, largely because Covid-19 curbed in-person politicking by Democrats. Republicans, though, have taken part in door-to-door persuasion. “When you don’t have this huge ground game, it’s a different kind of atmosphere,” Doyle said.
Biden holds a mid-single-digit lead in most recent polls of the state.
Evers’ lack of political prowess was well known when he ran for the office. He spent his career as a school administrator, rising to state superintendent of schools before running for governor. Frustrated by Walker’s approach to school funding — and emboldened by his landslide win in the superintendent election — Evers challenged the two-term incumbent despite his relative lack of political experience.
“He’s a competent, able administrator. He’s had baptism by fire in politics,” said Dale Schultz, a Republican who served more than three decades in the Wisconsin legislature. “I think he’s held up pretty well. If there’s a criticism, he hasn’t been able to establish a relationship with Republicans. That’s too bad, but I’m not certain that that’s even possible.”
Politically, Evers has been devoting time this year to a Democratic initiative to keep Republicans from winning a veto-proof supermajority in the statehouse. But an aide said the governor is also focused on helping Biden.
“The governor has spent his first two years in office working with the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to help build a sustainable party infrastructure from organizing to fundraising, raising millions into the [Democratic] Party,” Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback said. “We know the road to the White House runs right through Wisconsin, and our efforts the past two years will be critical to making sure we elect Vice President Biden and Democrats up and down the ticket this November.”
Kelda Roys, a Democrat from Madison who recently won a primary for a state Senate seat, said Evers is well liked by voters because of his sensible approach to issues, which she said makes Republicans look like obstructionists.
“Evers has very high approval ratings, [partly] because of how poorly the Republicans have behaved in the legislature,” said Roys, who called Evers “a measured, thoughtful, reasonable person.”
Evers’ handling of the coronavirus, which included a statewide order to wear masks, has consistently received strong marks from voters; his poll numbers saw an uptick in the early months of the pandemic. Even after the Kenosha unrest, Evers posted a 51 percent job approval in the latest Marquette Law School poll.
“It isn’t that he has cratered, it’s that he’s gone back to the levels of January and February,” said the poll’s director, Charles Franklin. He noted that even in those early months, Evers had higher job approval ratings than Walker typically had while governor.
But Evers lost ground in the marquee state poll from August to September, which is when the unrest in Kenosha began.
He was accused of moving too slowly to deploy enough National Guard troops to quash unrest after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Evers sent troops on the first night of the riots, declared a state of emergency and doubled the number of troops the second night. But it wasn’t enough to quell violence or destruction in the town. Two days after Blake’s shooting, protesters clashed with armed militia and three protesters were shot, two fatally, by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged with homicide.
Furious local officials from both parties sent a scathing letter to the governor.
“Our county is in a state of emergency and we need additional law enforcement to help preserve and save Kenosha County. We encourage you to visit Kenosha County and see firsthand the destruction that has been inflicted on our community,” the letter read.
Angela Jarrett of Kenosha said the violence during the riots left an indelible mark on their community, one that Jarrett said she believes will be with her young children for life.
“They listened to cars exploding at night,” she said. “This is going to be their forever. Just like 9/11 is my forever.”
Trump has pilloried Evers as feckless. The president pointed out that Evers had turned down federal help to contain the unrest — though Trump claimed, inaccurately, that Evers had not called the National Guard.
Rose said anger is still palpable among Kenosha residents and business owners who lost their livelihoods, feared for their lives or watched their town burn before their eyes.
“He made a grave, strategic error. They were allowed to run rampant and burn and burn and burn,” said Rose, who is also an attorney. “I am highly disappointed [in] the response from the governor. This is about the public safety and the lifeblood of this community.
“Who has the governor really helped? I think he helped the Trump campaign, not the Biden campaign — unwittingly.”
In an interview, Walker called Evers’ responses to various crises “weak” and argued they’re a vulnerability for Democrats not only in November but in 2022, when Evers is up for reelection. Walker and party leaders have already gotten behind Walker’s former lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, to run for governor.
Walker, a survivor of a gubernatorial recall effort himself, said he opposed the petition drive to recall Evers from office. The drive gained momentum during the days following Kenosha unrest, with Trump supporters circulating the petitions outside of public demonstrations. Democrats have downplayed the recall effort and Republicans in the state are divided over it, with many in the party saying the focus should be on electing Trump and winning a supermajority in the statehouse on Nov. 3.
“When I ran, we said recalls are wrong. They’re not for disagreements, they’re for very select cases when something criminal has happened,” Walker said. “You should wait until the next election and judge people when their term is complete. I want a new governor, [but] I’m going to wait until 2022 to make that happen.”