MILWAUKEE—When Sen. Bernie Sanders began to speak at the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s Founders Day Gala on Saturday night, he took a moment to thank the local party officials in attendance. “Let me begin by thanking you not just for my sake for being here tonight, but for the work that many of you have done over the years,” he said. He then gave a brief ode to the importance of getting involved in the political process. It was well received, but it could have been given anywhere.
Hillary Clinton began much differently, name-checking each of the party VIPs in attendance. “It is great to be here with some of your best,” she said, rattling off names like Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; “your fearless congresswoman,” Rep. Gwen Moore; your “fantastic senator,” Tammy Baldwin. She praised former Sen. Russ Feingold, who’s running to recapture his seat this cycle. She mentioned a few out-of-staters in attendance: Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards (“my friend”), Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, California Rep. Maxine Waters, and Indiana Rep. Andre Carson.
“To all of the city, state and local leaders who pour your hearts into building the Democratic Party across Wisconsin, please know this: I will help you take back the governorship and the state legislature,” she said. “I am a proud Democrat, and I support Democrats up and down the ticket, always have, always will.”
With whom could she have been drawing a contrast?
Local party dinners like this have never really been Bernie Sanders’ thing. He is, after all, an independent who’s running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination because he considers it the best vessel for spreading his message. To some crowds, his aloofness from any particular party is a plus. But at the Founders Day Gala, the subtext of Clinton’s speech was her fidelity to the Democratic Party, “up and down the ticket”—and Sanders’ lack of it.
Both candidates littered their speeches with attacks at the obvious go-to target in the state of Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker. “Think about all of the things that Gov. Scott Walker does, and I will do exactly the opposite,” Sanders said before railing against Walker’s anti-union positions and relationships with big business. He spoke of his “absolute contempt” for Wisconsin’s voter ID law. “If you don’t have the guts to participate in a free and fair election,” he said, “get out of politics, and get another job.” Clinton, meanwhile, went after the “bully” Walker’s attacks on teachers and firefighters, and his cuts to higher education.
But Clinton went further. Most notably, she made a point of emphasizing her preference in Tuesday’s state Supreme Court election. This technically “non-partisan” election between sitting judge Rebecca Bradley, whom Walker appointed to the court last fall and whom Republicans are supporting, and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg, whom Democrats are supporting, is a vicious battle being fought across the state. Clinton didn’t shy away from commenting.
“Right now, there is a Walker-appointed judge running for the highest court in this state,” Clinton said, as the crowd began to boo. Bradley “has actually said—I had to read this three times—she has actually said birth control is ‘morally abhorrent,’ and doctors who provide it are ‘party to murder.’ Let me say that again.” She said it again.
“There is no place on any Supreme Court, or any court in this country, no place at all for Rebecca Bradley’s decades-long track record of dangerous rhetoric against women, survivors of sexual assault, and the LGBT community.”
Each candidate made their broader pitch, but Clinton paid special attention to local political issues to show her devotion to party efforts at lower levels. “If I’m fortunate enough to earn the Democratic nomination, I will have your back against Gov. Walker and the Tea Party legislature here in Wisconsin,” she concluded. “I will campaign to elect Democrats at every level. … I’m the only candidate in this race who’s pledged to raise money to help build our party. I want to be your partner for the long haul—not just when I’m on the ballot, not just in an election year.”
Do primary voters really care about how loyal their candidates are to a party structure? Not necessarily. Exhibit A would be Sanders’ slight polling lead in Wisconsin at the moment. But if Sanders is going to try and sway Clinton’s superdelegates—a necessity if he’s going to win the nomination—he’s going to have to break a lot of relationships the Clintons have forged with party officials over the years. Clinton’s speech Saturday was a reminder of all those relationships, of the meticulous care required to build and maintain them. Sanders’ speech was a reminder of how little he likes the scrabbly routines of intraparty politics.