2018 elections

Wisconsin Prepares for a November Slugfest

Incumbent governor Scott Walker and Senator Tammy Baldwin are loathed by members of the opposite party, and the August 14 primary will shape challenges to them. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In one respect, Wisconsin is one of the upper midwestern states with a progressive tradition that Donald Trump improbably swept into the GOP column in 2016 (by just over 21,000 votes out of nearly 3 million cast). It was the first time the state went Republican in a presidential contest since 1984, the 49-state Reagan landslide over Walter Mondale.

But from another perspective, well before Trump, Wisconsin was ground zero for bitter partisan polarization fed by a newly militant and uncompromising conservative movement. Goveror Scott Walker, who is seeking his third term this year, is the sort of hammer-headed screw-you ideological politician that is becoming so common in Trump’s GOP. But Walker has an evil touch of Karl Rove in his makeup as well, craftily using his power to strike at the Democrats’ union funding base while becoming one of the Koch donor network’s favorite pols. Every election contest in which he is engaged is holy war for Democrats, who are frustrated by losses to him in 2010, 2014, and also in a failed recall election in 2012.

Senator Tammy Baldwin isn’t the kind of national devil-figure to the opposition that Walker has become. But her election in 2012 as a solidly liberal and openly lesbian senator from Madison, the Berkeley of Wisconsin, was an affront to Wisconsin Republicans, and she became an instant target for them this year, particularly after they improbably succeeded in reelecting Stone Age conservative Ron Johnson in 2016 over the legendary progressive Russ Feingold.

Without any question the gubernatorial and Senate races in Wisconsin this fall will be partisan slugfests, along with a battle over control of the state senate (currently held by Republicans, but only by a 18–15 margin). The stakes in state government were made even higher by the failure of the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this to intervene in a partisan gerrymandering suit aimed at reversing a heavy-handed GOP state legislative map. It means control of the governorship and the legislature between now and 2022 (when the next round of redistricting occurs) could shape Wisconsin politics for many years.

Walker’s name on the ballot will guarantee a vigorous Democratic challenge regardless of the identify of the nominee. Hardly anyone is neutral about the man. According to the authoritative Marquette Law School poll, the state is entirely and stubbornly divided over him:

Combining five Wisconsin polls by the Marquette Law School in 2017 and 2018, exactly 48% of registered voters view Walker favorably and 48% view him unfavorably, according to data provided by Marquette pollster Charles Franklin. 

The Democratic field against Walker is large and not terribly well known. But most accounts the front-runner is State School Superintendent Tony Evers, enjoys statewide name recognition and offers a message very focused on Walker’s unpopular public education cuts (which continue to be a key issue, along with his gutting of collective bargaining rights and his penchant for corporate welfare). There are several potentially viable rivals (as described by the New York Times), but it’s unclear whether any of them can break out of the pack:

Kelda Roys, a lawyer and former lawmaker, whose campaign ad showing her breast-feeding her daughter drew national notice; Mahlon Mitchell, the leader of a state firefighter union who is African-American; Matt Flynn, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who has taken criticism for his work as a lawyer for the Milwaukee Archdiocese during the abuse scandal; Paul Soglin, the longest serving mayor of Madison; Kathleen Vinehout, a state lawmaker and farmer; Mike McCabe, known for his work with a watchdog group tracking political financing and corruption; and Josh Pade, a lawyer who once interned with Russ Feingold, the former United States Senator.

General election polls are a bit premature at this point, and very much dependent on assessments of Walker. Marquette had him with small leads over the various under-publicized Democratic candidates in June. A late June NBC News/Marist poll that was loaded with all sorts of bad news for Republicans showed Walker trailing Evers 41/54. The odds are high that by November the race will be close, expensive, and loud. And while he’s rallied to win decisively in the past, his big failure of a presidential campaign in 2016 should not been forgotten.

Republicans are holding a much better defined primary to choose an opponent for Tammy Baldwin. The state party Establishment favorite and early front-runner is state senator Leah Vukmir, a stolid conservative who is the presumed choice of Scott Walker (though he has remained officially neutral), and has been endorsed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and three other Wisconsin U.S. House members, plus former RNC chair and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Her opponent is another of the outsider-businessman types who have popped up in such large quantities this year: Kevin Nicholson, a former Marine Corps officer in Afghanistan and a high-powered management consultant. Last fall Tim Alberta described him memorably:

Nicholson could have been built in a GOP laboratory. He is hungry and confident and committed, having oriented much of his adult life around an eventual run for public office. His published writings on pension reform read like a product of the Heritage Foundation; his voluntary second tour overseas is the stuff ad-makers fantasize about. He is, for comparison’s sake, a wealthier, better-looking and more charming version of Senator Tom Cotton. 

Nicholson does have one jarring biographical detail: before joining the military he was national president of the College Democrats of America, and said and did the things Democrats said and did. But he seems to have sweated off the liberal aroma, with backing from Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and the Club for Growth. More importantly, he’s being backed financially to the hilt by megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein (residents of Illinois whose Uline corporate headquarters are in Wisconsin), generous contributors to all kinds of right-wing candidates around the country (e.g., Roy Moore, Chris McDaniel, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump). The Uihleins have given an estimated $10.7 million to groups backing Nicholson and opposing Vukmir and Baldwin.

The race is very close according to all the public polls, and it’s getting a bit nasty, with Team Nicholson predictably seizing on evidence that Vukmir hasn’t always adored Donald Trump:

Breitbart News has seized on this video, made during the 2016 presidential nomination process, claiming that horrified MAGA people are abandoning her in droves. She’s struck back angrily, noting that after she supported three other candidates (Walker, Rubio, and Cruz) in the primaries she was loyal to Trump when he needed it, taping an ad for him after the Access Hollywood video came out.

Democrats are popping popcorn as Vukmir and Nicholson go after each other, and Tammy Baldwin is quietly raising money. As of the end of June she had over $7 million in cash-on-hand and a solid fundraising operation. She’s leading both Republicans by double digits in the polling averages.

But Wisconsin Democrats aren’t going to take anything for granted after Russ Feingold lost a big lead in 2016 and was upset by Johnson on the power of a wave of last-minute money. And from a national perspective, beating Baldwin could help Republicans offset losses elsewhere in states (e.g., Montana, West Virginia, Missouri, and perhaps Tennessee or Texas) that went for Trump much more heavily than Wisconsin. And despite a likely national Democratic wave, don’t bet on a lot of ticket-splitting or even disproportionate partisan enthusiasm in Wisconsin. Both parties are ready to rumble and are armed to the teeth.

Wisconsin Prepares for a November Slugfest