In the past few weeks, Rep. Deb Andraca, a first-year Democrat in the state Assembly from the Milwaukee suburbs, has gained unexpected fame on TikTok. Before her most popular TikTok, posted two days before Valentine’s Day, Andraca only had about 18 followers.
“The pressure is on. It used to just be me doing dorky mom TikToks,” Andraca said. “I’m just really happy that people seem to be enjoying them…The message behind it is important and it’s not funny, but if that can be conveyed in a way that gets people’s attention, then I will do what it takes.”
Andraca now has over 3,600 followers and is one of the only state lawmakers on the platform. She said two of the youngest lawmakers came up to her to talk about the videos, but most state legislators aren’t on the platform.
Lawmakers in other states have also seen success on the platform. Other groups in Wisconsin have also joined the platform, including the Department of Natural Resources and the state Democratic party.
While she began her career in political communication, Andraca also has a background in education, which helped her see the benefits of the platform.
“When you work as an elementary school teacher, you have to get your message out quickly, you have to do it in an entertaining and engaging way,” Andraca said.
On her most popular TikTok, commenters said Andraca had “serious teacher energy” and “powerful Midwestern Mom energy.” The video, posted on Feb. 12, shows Andraca making jars of candy for Republicans in the legislature.
“Republicans are red, Democrats are blue, but Wisconsin is purple, so I hope to work with you!” the Valentine message reads.
The video was set to The White Stripes’ “We’re Going To Be Friends” and currently has over 307,000 views and nearly 70,000 likes.
“Having a purple district, it’s very important to me to be able to work with Republicans and Democrats, whatever it takes that benefits my constituents,” she said. “I called every single Republican freshman legislator, I called all of the Republican legislators around my district and they don’t return my calls, they don’t take meetings with me.”
Still, Andraca said she thought it was “ridiculous” that she needed to send Valentines just to communicate with her colleagues.
“Nobody knows that this thing is getting so much attention,” Andraca said, adding that state Republicans aren’t on TikTok. She said one or two Republicans called her back after she delivered the Valentines.
Andraca was one of two Democrats who flipped Assembly seats in November. She ran as a “centrist” in the competitive 23rd district, which includes suburbs north of Milwaukee including Bayside, Fox Point and Whitefish Bay. She beat Republican incumbent Jim Ott by just over 3 percentage points.
In the comment sections, Andraca has been able to communicate with constituents and people who phonebanked for her during the campaign. She said that reading supportive and positive comments has been much different from her campaign, when she received “the most demoralizing, awful” comments.
“[TikTok] just seems to be a medium where people seem to be more supportive, at least in my very short experience,” Andraca said.
In one of the first studies of political communication on TikTok, researchers called for additional study into the platform's recommendation system, which is “pivotal in the creation of user communities and the shaping of political interactions.”
When asked how she keeps up with TikTok trends, Andraca merely said, “I don’t.” She said her teenage daughters taught her how to add captions and other information, like a donation link, to her profile after commenters asked how to support her.
Andraca said she also decided to try TikTok to learn how to communicate digitally and edit video content during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In early January, Andraca posted a TikTok of her getting ready to vote in the Assembly by putting on multiple face coverings, set to “Stayin’ Alive.”
In late December, Assembly Democrats had sent a letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, asking for virtual options in the new session, raising concern that members and staff were not wearing masks.
Andraca said she thought about putting out a statement about the situation, but she decided to “turn to the Bee Gees. They say it better than I might.”
Andraca said that if she has the time, she would like to make content related to her legislative priorities, including getting fair maps and ending gerrymandering. She also hopes that more young people become involved and aware in politics, regardless of their party.
“You could spend time talking about how bad something is, or you can really just point out how ridiculous it is,” Andraca said. “In these days, if you can do it in a way that is funny and entertaining, people will hear it better.”
Hope Karnopp is the news manager and dabbles in music reviews at The Daily Cardinal. She previously hosted the Cardinal Call for WORT-FM and edited state news.