MIDDLETON – Wisconsin Democrats kept their party leadership intact during this weekend's state convention despite a crushing 2016 election that saw President Donald Trump become the first Republican to win the state since 1984.
Incumbent party chairwoman Martha Laning received 722 votes, beating back challenges from Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy, Madison attorney Eric Finch, and retired Milwaukee businessman Joe Donovan. Kennedy finished in second place with 569 votes, while neither of the other candidates received more than 50 votes.
State Rep. David Bowen of Milwaukee won re-election as the party's vice chair over state Rep. Amanda Stuck of Appleton.
"I think a lot of people talked to both of us about a two-year term not being enough to really turn things around when we’ve been losing races for as long as we have," Laning told reporters after the results were announced.
During speeches to delegates on Saturday morning, Laning urged delegates not to change leaders, while Kennedy blistered current party officials for focusing too much on the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Dane counties at the expense of the rest of the state.
"I need you to believe in the Democratic Party," Kennedy told delegates. "Believe that we are better than our losses. Believe that we can be the majority party again. Believe we can win again."
Laning became chairwoman in 2015, on the heels of three straight Democratic defeats at the hands of Gov. Scott Walker and an eroding position in the state Legislature during the tenure of former chairman Mike Tate.
Laning called the 2016 election results “devastating” and said she wished she could’ve gotten resources into the field sooner to help Democratic candidates. Some Democratic insiders have described friction between the Tate holdovers and Laning that harmed the party in 2016.
Party staff have hired seven field organizers and are recruiting candidates for the 2018 elections, she said.
"We have laid the groundwork but we need to capitalize on it," Laning said. "Changing gears now and not finishing this plan will not get us the results we want."
Wisconsin Republicans have described their Democratic counterparts as a party “in disarray.” A billboard on Madison's Beltline Highway greeted visitors with the message on Friday afternoon.
To reinforce the point, Republicans slipped campaign flyers under the hotel doors of Democratic delegates at the Madison Marriott West during the convention. The move both miffed and amused Democrats.
"You might’ve found the flyer under your door from the Republican party – and it shows you how much they’re shaking in their boots right now," Bowen told delegates.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke responded with sarcasm via Twitter, referencing the lack of Democratic candidates who plan to run for governor in 2018 against Walker, who has said he’s ready to run for a third term.
“Yes, terrified that <insert candidate name here when one is found> may be a real challenge to Gov. Walker in 2018,” tweeted Steineke, R-Kaukauna.