Democrats need progressives to win.

Author:Nichols, John


The last time a Democrat was elected to represent the farm country and small manufacturing cities of Wisconsin's sixth congressional district was in 1964. That's when a machinist named John Race was talked into serving as the party's sacrificial lamb in a district that had been a Republican stronghold since that party was formed by Wisconsin abolitionists in the town of Ripon more than a century earlier.

No one thought Race had a chance. Then the vote tally started coming in on the night of November 3, 1964. It was clear that Democratic presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson was headed toward an even bigger landslide than the polls had predicted, winning parts of the country that had been Republican since Abraham Lincoln led them into the fold. The historically Republican state of Wisconsin gave Johnson 62 percent of the vote, and Democratic U.S. Senator William Proxmire won reelection with ease.

That was enough for Race, a Democratic loyalist from the factory town of Fond du Lac, but when the sixth district tally was complete, he was the surprise winner against veteran Republican Congressman William Van Pelt--a loopy conservative who had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So John Race put down his tools and headed off to Washington and joined a Democratic "supermajority" in Congress. Race only served only did so as part of the transformational eighty-ninth Congress, which established Medicare and Medicaid, launched a war on poverty, and passed the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act, and the Freedom of Information Act.

Democrats never again won the sixth district seat. Some years, they barely even tried.

But, this year, progressive dairy farmer Sarah Lloyd is trying to pull a "John Race." A longtime National Farmers Union activist with a record of service as a local elected official and deep roots in the district, she is running as a Democrat against one of the most extreme members of the House Republican caucus, freshman Representative Glenn Grothman. Lloyd is part of the wave of Democrats inspired by the presidential candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (whom Lloyd represented on the Democratic National Conventions rules committee) to mount unlikely congressional bids. She's in an uphill race and she knows it. But as she campaigns along the country roads of northcentral Wisconsin, she keeps thinking about John Race and 1964. And she is right to do so.


It now appears possible that the Republican Party could implode around the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, in much the same way that it did around Barry Goldwater's "in-your-guts-you-know-he's-nuts" campaign of 1964. Lloyd is thinking her unlikely bid might be looking a little more likely. And she is not alone.

Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who is mounting a strong bid to retake his old seat, predicts Lloyds race "is going to be one of the big surprises on election night." There are similar...

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