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'Unbelievable': Wisconsin political observers continue to marvel at Trump, Johnson victories
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'Unbelievable': Wisconsin political observers continue to marvel at Trump, Johnson victories

It hadn't been done in Wisconsin for more than three decades.

Not since Bob Kasten was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980 and Ronald Reagan carried the state in 1984 had a Republican Senate or presidential candidate won Wisconsin in a presidential year. 

Donald Trump and Ron Johnson changed that on Tuesday, leaving both Republicans and Democrats stunned. Trump earned the state's 10 electoral votes by a margin of less than 1 percent, while the Republican senator defeated Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold by about 3 points. 

And the historical gains didn't stop there. Democrats failed to pick up seats they were expected to win, and lost seats they were expected to hold onto. Republicans now hold a 20-14 majority in the state Senate — which could grow by one more seat, pending a recount — and a 64-35 Assembly majority.

Despite shattering early voting records, statewide turnout fell far short of what state elections officials projected. At 66 percent, it was the lowest turnout rate since 1996.

The outcome came as a surprise to nearly everyone involved. Not a single public poll showed Trump winning the Badger State, and Johnson only led in one poll released throughout the campaign.

The shock stung Feingold's election night party, where the former senator said he "didn't expect" Johnson would defeat him for a second time in six years. Something is "happening in the country," Feingold said.

"I don’t understand it completely. I don't think anybody does, but we as Americans have to do the best we can to deal with the pain in this country and get people to come together," he told his supporters as they watched TV screens forecasting a Trump presidency.

Longtime Republican strategist Bill McCoshen boiled it down to a few factors. He blamed the low turnout rate on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, for whom he argued Democratic voters had little enthusiasm.

Clinton, who led in general election polls throughout the race, did not visit Wisconsin after losing its primary election to Bernie Sanders in April. McCoshen said he's not sure another campaign visit would have helped, though.

But GOP strategist Brian Nemoir said he thinks Democrats will kick themselves for not bringing Clinton back to Wisconsin.

"There clearly was a number of people who fell asleep at the switch when it came to Wisconsin within the Democratic circles," Nemoir said.

McCoshen also attributed the GOP victories to Wisconsin's nationally-renowned Republican campaign operation, noting that House Speaker Paul Ryan barnstormed the state in the election's final days with Johnson, campaigning for the entire Republican ticket.

Ryan gave $1 million from his campaign account to the Republican Party of Wisconsin, and was on the trail for the beginning and end of Johnson's campaign. He also contributed the maximum amount to Johnson's campaign, through Prosperity Action PAC and Ryan for Congress, held campaign events to benefit the senator and sent several direct-mail and digital fundraising solicitations on Johnson's behalf.

"No question, he had an impact. I don’t think Donald Trump wins without Paul Ryan," McCoshen said.

Democratic operative Joe Zepecki suggested Trump's "nasty, no-holds-barred, campaign of personality" contributed to depressed turnout throughout the country. 

The second thing the Trump campaign did right in Wisconsin, Zepecki said, was tapping into a "reservoir of support" in the 67 Wisconsin counties that are not as clearly defined by politics as deep-blue Dane and Milwaukee and deep-red Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.

Obama won those 67 counties in 2012 by about 35,000 votes. Trump won them by 130,000 ballots.

"I think it’s sort of a not-impossible-to-understand brew of economic insecurity, a world that is changing socially and culturally more quickly outside of those communities than it is in those communities, and absolute disdain for large institutions, be they the media, be they government, big business," Zepecki said. "That brew of those things, I think really ignited voters that were not believed to be out there."

Nemoir agreed the rural support for Trump was "unbelievable." 

The Republican Party has come to rely on the conservative Milwaukee suburbs — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington Counties — as an "insurance plan" for its candidates, he said, but opportunity for growth exists in the rest of the state. 

Trump proved wrong the theory that a Republican candidate cannot win without a strong performance in the WOW counties, McCoshen said. 

The counties with the most significant percentage increases in Republican votes from 2012 to 2016 were Menominee, Juneau, Trempealeau, Forest and Jackson. The Republican vote in Menominee, the state's most impoverished county, jumped by 50 percent, while the others increased by about 30 percent.

In comparison, only three counties saw an increase in Democratic votes from 2012 to 2016: Dane and Waukesha by less than 1 percent, and Ozaukee by 5 percent. 

Johnson outperformed Trump by 11 percent statewide, while Feingold lagged behind Clinton by 0.3 percent.

Johnson's victory was less surprising to most than Trump's, if only because polls made clear that momentum was on his side in the campaign's final weeks. 

Marquette University Law School poll director Charles Franklin said that although the poll predicted the wrong winner, showing Feingold ahead by one point a week before the election, it captured the dynamics of the Senate race in a way it failed to do with the presidential contest.

Democrats and Republicans alike commended Johnson's discipline, noting that he carried on with an unwavering strategy even when national groups and donors wrote him off. McCoshen likened the race to the "tortoise and the hare," while Zepecki said Johnson deserves "a ton of credit for sticking to his guns."

The senator's role as chairman of the Senate homeland security committee and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act also likely helped him win, McCoshen said, referring in particular to the recently announced Obamacare premium increases. Groups like the conservative Americans for Prosperity also touted their get-out-the-vote efforts, reaching just shy of 3 million voters at the door and on the phone.

"On the flip-side, the Russ Feingold of the 2016 campaign never seemed to capture that spirit or essence of who Russ was or how he was perceived to be, that this state saw in 1998, 2004 and even 2010," Zepecki said.

Feingold was a progressive populist in the vein of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren "before it was cool," but his campaign struggled to recapture that in 2016, Zepecki said.

Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, also credited a "tidal wave of money" that buoyed Johnson.

"I think it’s very clear that the policies that Democrats are supporting are the ones that are going to make the lives of Wisconsinites better, but Democrats have to do a better job in articulating those policies," Ross said. "That message isn’t getting through."

Michelle Litjens, a Republican former state representative, also said Feingold failed to articulate a discernible message, while Johnson gave voters reasons to support him.

Still, Litjens was just as surprised to see Johnson win as she was to see a Trump victory.

The difference is that while Litjens backed Johnson, she did not support Trump. Litjens offered cautious optimism for Trump's presidency, saying she hopes he will work with Ryan.

"As President Obama said, we are not Republicans or Democrats, we are American citizens," Litjens said. "We all want our country to be successful. I actually, after thinking about it more today, I feel better about a Donald Trump presidency than I did before."

Strategists on both sides of the aisle agreed on at least one thing: candidates and campaigns matter.

"Candidates matter. I don’t think you can recycle old candidates. Issues matter. People do care about issues. Hopefully just for 2016, character seems to matter the least," McCoshen said. "But I’m hoping that matters more in the future. That was not a deciding factor. More than 60 percent of the people didn't think Trump was honest or trustworthy. Fifty-two percent were extremely uncomfortable with him being president, yet he wins the state."

Trump's victory was living proof that marketing can matter more than the product itself, Ross said.

"He was able to channel the economic insecurities of the middle class and poor people, and he was able to do that with basically an agenda that will devastate them," Ross said.

The results may not have been such a shock had the election gone on for one more week, Franklin said. He added that this election may lead pollsters throughout the country to reconsider their practices — perhaps extending their polling into the weekend before the election. The most recent Marquette poll sampled voters Oct. 27-30.

The last time the outcome was so far from what polls had told the public, he said, was likely the Dewey vs. Truman election in 1948.

What Democrats must do next, Ross said, is find a better way to make their message resonate with voters, talking more about issues like student loan debt, for one.

Zepecki agreed student loan debt should be an area of focus for Democrats in future races.

"There clearly are opportunities for us, there clearly are instances where we are on the right side," Zepecki said, looking ahead to the state's next gubernatorial election. "We just need to do a better job communicating that and listening to voters about their concerns and their fears and their hopes and their dreams, and I think in 2018 we will find a candidate who can do that."

Zepecki said he likes Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin's re-election chances in 2018 and he's feeling bullish about a Democratic campaign for governor. That's based mostly on the tendency for the pendulum to swing back after one party holds power.

For Republicans, McCoshen said, there's "plenty of time and room" for members of the "Never Trump" contingent to return to the party. That will be made easier if Trump works with legislative leaders like Ryan and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell to set an ambitious policy agenda, he said.

It was Republicans coming home to their party that helped Trump cinch the win, and even some of the state's longest holdouts have started to embrace him as their party leader, including Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, who said he's "excited" about the party's prospects.

"I do think Republicans have one chance to fix Washington D.C., and Americans are counting on them to do that," Litjens said. "Donald Trump ran against the status quo. And so Republicans now have to make changes to bureaucracy. They need to do it right away, to show Americans you can send us there to get the job done."

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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