Wisconsin Will Be Critical Test for Both Parties in 2018

Wisconsin Will Be Critical Test for Both Parties in 2018
Marisa Wojcik /The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via AP
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President Trump’s surprise victory in Wisconsin last year left Democrats reeling and Republicans exuberant as they inched closer to complete control of the Upper Midwest swing state. Next year’s midterm elections will determine whether the GOP can build on that success and turn the Badger State fully red, or whether Democrats can reconnect with voters in the middle of the country and re-establish their once solid blue wall there.

That challenge will play out as the two parties attempt to protect one incumbent and unseat another: Both Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin are up for re-election in races that will attract significant national attention and money.

For the GOP, re-electing Walker and defeating Baldwin would leave them in control of the top statewide offices, cement the conservative grip on power in the state, protect a key governorship held by a prominent national figure, and possibly increase the party’s majority in the Senate. For Democrats, next year represents a chance to defeat a polarizing governor who’s held power for the better part of the decade, protect a Senate seat critical to keeping their minority margin narrow and re-establish connections with disenchanted voters who flocked to Trump or sat out the race in 2016.

With the election a year away, Walker will officially kick off his campaign Sunday with an event at a manufacturing business in Waukesha, a critical area of the state just outside Milwaukee. He’ll then traverse Wisconsin over the next several days, visiting other manufacturing facilities and local businesses for campaign events, including a tailgate at the Green Bay Packers game Monday night. His campaign gave a preview of this tour in a one-minute ad released earlier this month titled “More to Be Done,” which touts Walker’s economic record of low unemployment, a balanced budget and tax cuts.

“Our bold reforms have delivered results for Wisconsin’s hard-working families, from lower taxes to record investment in our classrooms – but there’s more to be done,” the two-term governor said in a statement when the ad was released. “I’m ready to continue the fight and keep Wisconsin moving forward.”

While much of Walker’s focus has been, and likely will be, on the economy, he has also taken a pointed stance on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racially motivated police violence. Last week, Walker launched an online petition calling on players to stand during the anthem, calling it a “divisive political sideshow.” In an appearance on Fox News, he said they should protest on their own time, and added, “Don’t take away from something that should be a unifying force.”

Baldwin, meanwhile, has been steadfastly positioning herself for re-election, spending significant time visiting the northern part of the state to connect with voters outside the major cities and big media markets, areas where Hillary Clinton vastly underperformed President Obama’s 2012 showing. Baldwin is also running on a heavily economic message, citing legislation ensuring that U.S. steel is used for certain manufacturing products -- a bill that Trump praised in a visit to Wisconsin earlier this year – and a measure to help prevent hedge funds from closing local businesses, named for a Wisconsin town where a paper mill was shut down in 2012.

Republicans see potential openings to attack Baldwin’s refusal to moderate on certain positions -- they hope to paint her support for Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-all care plan as too liberal for the state, though Democrats argue that it’s been a consistent position for her for years and that health care is a winning issue for Democrats after Republicans’ failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act this year.

Republicans also plan to use the pending fight over tax reform to hit the freshman senator. Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a group funded by the Koch brothers, launched a $1.6 million ad campaign accusing her of supporting higher taxes. It was the group’s first paid advertising against a Democratic senator up for re-election in 2018. While some Democrats have been open to supporting the GOP tax plan, Baldwin has been an outspoken critic of it.

“Wisconsin families need a tax break and that’s what I’m working for,” she said in a statement after Senate Republicans passed their budget earlier this month, setting up passage of their tax bill through the reconciliation process. “I just do not think it’s right to make the middle class pay for tax breaks for the top 1% with rising deficits and cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.”

A year out from the midterms, it’s difficult to predict the national environment and what issues will be at the forefront next fall. Regardless, Democrats face a critical test to improve their grassroots organizing, voter outreach and messaging in the state. Clinton received criticism for not visiting Wisconsin after her loss there by just 22,000 votes -- she received 230,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012.  But Wisconsin Democrats say it wasn’t the lack of visits, but the lack of investment in a ground game, voter outreach and a winning message that doomed them. (It wasn’t just the Clinton campaign that suffered -- Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won re-election by a comfortable margin despite trailing in most polling before Election Day.)

The state party is working hard to fix those issues. At the behest of Baldwin, they created a position for a statewide organizer, and also hired seven regional organizers to connect with local voters and activist groups, hoping to harness the enthusiasm from groups that have popped up since the start of the Trump administration. Martha Laning, the state party chairwoman, said the party traditionally had on-the-ground organizers only in the few months leading up to the election, not in the off year.

“Now we have organizers out in the field a year-and-a-half beforehand, creating relationships with activists,” she told RCP. Of the 22,000 vote deficit from 2016, she added: “We can easily pick those votes up when we ensure the voters know what Democrats stand for and what we’re doing to help them.”

Republicans, however, are bullish on their own campaign infrastructure and ground game, which was developed and honed through Walker’s election, re-election and fending off opponents’ recall attempt. They believe his connection to grassroots conservatives will help mitigate any headwinds created by an environment favorable to Democrats.

“Governor Walker’s supporters are so committed to him, I don’t think they’ll sit one out or take it for granted, and nor will he,” said Bill McCoshen, a longtime GOP strategist in the state. “I don’t think there’s that big of a threat of apathy on the Republican side in 2018.”

While both parties are intent on protecting their incumbent, they also acknowledge tough battles ahead in trying to knock off their opponent. Republicans concede that Baldwin is an aggressive campaigner and an impressive fundraiser. And the primary to challenge her is shaping up to be a divisive and negative contest between state lawmaker Leah Vukmir and political newcomer and former Marine Kevin Nicholson. There is some concern that with so many Democratic-held seats on the map next year, Wisconsin may not remain a top-tier priority for the national party.

“For Republicans to have a chance here, the RNC and senatorial committee have to be ready with resources literally the day after the primary is completed if they want to take this seat,” said McCoshen, a former chief of staff to former Gov. Tommy Thompson, who lost to Baldwin in 2012. Between Freedom Partners and several outside groups supporting Nicholson, $3 million has already been spent attacking the incumbent.

Democrats in the state are not exactly bullish on their chances of defeating Walker, whose fundraising ability and connection with the conservative grassroots in the state make him a formidable opponent. But he will also likely be a high-profile target for national Democrats, who believe him to be vulnerable. Walker’s tenure has made him a polarizing figure in the state, with both a high floor and low ceiling of support. Walker won both his first election in 2010 and his 2014 re-election with just 52 percent of the vote in strong years for Republicans nationwide.

With Trump’s approval rating underwater and enthusiasm against him running high, Democrats are hopeful that the political wind will be at their backs next fall. Last week, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling released a survey showing Walker with 43 percent approval and 49 percent disapproval; it also showed him behind, 48 percent-43 percent, to a generic Democratic opponent.

Republicans discount the PPP poll, and believe Walker is in a solid position a year out from Election Day, though he’s likely to face a strong challenge from whoever emerges from the Democratic primary. A poll from Marquette University in June showed Walker with 48 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval ratings, though the survey didn’t ask about the 2018 vote. It also showed that 53 percent of voters said Wisconsin was going in the right direction and only 42 percent saying it was on the wrong track, an improvement from when the same question was asked earlier this year.

The Democratic primary is crowded, with as many as 10 candidates running and no clear frontrunner having emerged yet; the candidates range from political newcomers to state lawmakers and lower level state officials.

“I was kidding with some of my Democratic friends that we should run ‘generic Democrat’ and fill in the name later after we win,” Dave Cieslewicz, the former Democratic mayor of Madison, told RealClearPolitics, referring to the PPP poll. “The general consensus among Democratic insiders is we don’t have our A-team running for governor, although the wind should be blowing in our direction.”

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted an A-level candidate who could knock my socks off,” said one Democratic strategist in the state who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “But the reality is we have B-level candidates, and a B-level candidate can win this race.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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