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Barack Obama and Jim Doyle at Wright Middle School

Democrats were in charge in both Wisconsin and Washington when President Obama visited Madison's Wright Middle School on Nov. 4, 2009. Gov. Jim Doyle, shown applauding as the crowd welcomed Obama, went back to Washington with the president on Air Force One and met with officials about a range of topics, including education funds for Wisconsin. PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

Wisconsin Democrats need to get to know Wisconsin a little better. It would give them confidence going into the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Democrats are, at this point, in full fretting mode with regard to the question of who will carry the party’s banner into battle with Republican Gov. Scott Walker. After former state Sen. Tim Cullen decided not to seek the Democratic nomination after entertaining a bid for months, his fellow partisans suddenly realized that they have got to get their act together. Then, in short order, former Green Bay Packer Mark Tauscher and Madison tech executive Mark Bakken signaled they were going to pass as well.

Cullen was not necessarily going to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2018, but he was an experienced political figure who was preparing to stake a claim. Tauscher and Bakken were intriguing newcomers with the potential to mount mold-breaking campaigns. When they were thinking of running, it suggested that things were happening with a party that last upset a sitting Republican governor in 2002, when Jim Doyle beat Scott McCallum.

With them gone, Democrats are scrambling. They still have prospects — such as state Rep. Dana Wachs, a respected lawyer and legislator from Eau Claire, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, western Wisconsin state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, former Democratic Party Chair Matt Flynn, and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

But there is a sense that this race is not generating the interest and enthusiasm that’s required to upset Walker. This unsettles grass-roots Democrats and smart party leaders.

Fair enough. To my view, parties should never hesitate to press the panic button. It gets them engaged and energized.

But as they consider 2018, Wisconsin Democrats need some perspective.

Here are three things to keep in mind.

First, while Scott Walker is a very experienced politician who understands how to campaign in Wisconsin, he is coming off a failed 2016 Republican presidential bid that highlighted his weaknesses. Suddenly, he seems a lot less invincible.

Second, Walker has never been an exceedingly popular statewide candidate. Walker won 52 percent of the vote in 2014, 53 percent in the 2012 recall, and 52 percent in 2010. Unlike former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who went from 52 percent in 1986 to 58 percent in 1990 to 67 percent in 1994, Walker has never been able to expand his base. And in the latest Marquette University Law School poll, Walker’s approval rating was just 45 percent.

Third, Walker will be running in 2018 against not just a Democratic candidate but against Wisconsin electoral history. Over the past 50 years, Wisconsin has established a pattern of turning against the party of a newly elected president in the next gubernatorial election. This is especially true when the new president grabs the White House away from the opposition party.

Consider this:

In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon was elected president (carrying Wisconsin). In 1970, a Democratic ticket led by Patrick Lucey swept the state.

In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president (carrying Wisconsin). In 1978, Republican Lee Sherman Dreyfus was elected governor and Republicans improved their position in congressional and legislative races.

In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan was elected president (carrying Wisconsin). In 1982, a Democratic ticket led by Tony Earl won most statewide, congressional and legislative races.

In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president (carrying Wisconsin). In 1994, Republicans won almost all statewide races (in fairness, the popular Thompson was leading the ticket; but the GOP advanced that year well beyond where it has been in previous elections where Tommy led the ticket.)

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush was elected president (narrowly losing Wisconsin). In 2002, a Democratic ticket led by Doyle and Barbara Lawton won, and progressive Democrat Peg Lautenschlager won a hotly contested race for state attorney general.

In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama was elected president (carrying Wisconsin). In 2010, Walker’s Republican ticket won most statewide posts and full control of the Legislature.

What gives? Wisconsin is a closely divided and highly competitive state when it comes to politics. That means that both parties have the potential to win statewide races for president, governor and other posts. But it is also a contrarian state, in which swing voters tend to swing quickly against the party in power in Washington. New presidents quickly disappoint; they break promises, mangle economies and start wars.

Fifty-three percent of Wisconsinites who cast ballots in November 2016 did not vote for Donald Trump. And polls suggest that Trump’s popularity has only declined since Election Day. In 2018, when Wisconsinites are looking for a way to signal their disapproval of Republican mismanagement in Washington, it is unlikely that they will stop with votes against House Speaker Paul Ryan and whoever the Republicans nominate for the U.S. Senate. In fact, if history is any kind of indicator, they will also take their anger out on Scott Walker. For Democrats, that should be cause for optimism — and a much more serious focus on identifying and nominating a strong candidate for governor.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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