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Patty Schachtner

Senator-elect Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset

Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans say the results of the 10th Senate District will drive their respective campaign strategies into the fall.  

Heartened by their victory Tuesday as Democrat Patty Schachtner beat Republican Rep. Adam Jarchow by 11 points in a special election, Wisconsin Democrats say Schachtner's campaign exemplifies their ongoing game plan as they aim to unseat Gov. Scott Walker and reelect U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin in November. 

"This was a chance to put into action the strategy we had already been planning for fall, making sure that even in districts where political pundits think Democrats don't stand a chance, that we were going to work to find great candidates who really speak to local issues and run strong campaigns to focus on the basics, on getting out and talking to voters," said Jenni Dye, executive director of the State Senate Democratic Committee. "We had a chance to do that in the 10th to great success." 

Despite being significantly outspent by conservative advocacy groups, Schachtner's campaign benefited from an attack ad that backfired, said Melanie Conklin, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.  

"Patty overperformed in every single part of her county beyond my wildest expectations ... Republicans made a huge error when they went after her because she had debt from the school district trying to pay for her kids' lunch," she said, referring to an ad by an outside conservative group highlighting a lawsuit against Schachtner by the school district over unpaid school lunch debt. "(Shachtner) told me this morning when we were talking that a woman had stopped her in the grocery store ... and said, 'You know, when I heard that ad about you not being able to pay your bills for your kids' lunches, all I could think of was, that’s me.'"

Democrats did not frame the race as a referendum on Trump, Conklin said. She argued the results instead reflect Wisconsin Republicans' and Walker's performance over the last seven years. 

"We did not even hear Donald Trump's name mentioned at doors or on calls or by any other people we tapped to make contact with voters. He didn't come up," she said.

The surprising number of votes for Schachtner was an alarm bell for Republicans, who affirmed a series of tweets from Walker Wednesday in which the governor called the results a "wake-up call" and asked supporters to donate to the campaign.  

The state Republican party said they are rapidly increasing volunteers and opening five new campaign offices across the state to promote their candidates. The group said they plan to open field offices in Wausau, La Crosse, Sheboygan, Milwaukee and Racine. Those are in addition to existing, year-round offices in Waukesha, Green Bay, Eau Claire and Madison.

"Tuesday night was a wake-up call for Republicans and made clear that all we've accomplished for hardworking families is at risk of being undone if Democrats regain power," said Wisconsin Republican Party spokesman Alec Zimmerman in an email.  "The stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines and Wisconsin Republicans will be redoubling our efforts to engage supporters and take our message of results directly to voters across the state.”

Hours after his tweets asking for help telling voters about Republican policies, Walker's campaign said Wednesday they will create a statewide network of Walker-specific coordinators in each county to work alongside Republican Party volunteers. 

“I am proud to name county coordinators in each of the state’s 72 counties who are working to mobilize neighbors and fuel our campaign,” Walker said in a statement. 

The coordinators will take the lead in each county on organizing campaign events, knocking on doors, calling and using social media to promote campaign messages.  He is also using the defeat to spur donors. 

In a fundraising email titled "SHOCKING LOSS," sent hours after announcing his new volunteers, Walker said the Republican "wake-up call" was "much needed." 

"This is a district that President Trump carried by 17 percent … but the Republican candidate last night lost by 10 points," the email said, urging action. 

Walker is moving quickly to promote his message. He is scheduled to discuss welfare reform at press conferences in LaCrosse, Eau Claire and Appleton Thursday. 

“While this is a wake up call for Republicans, the campaign has long been working to organize and prepare for the election in November," said Nathan Craft, a spokesman for Walker's campaign. "Governor Walker has a strong record of getting things done for hardworking families ... which he'll be sharing during his robust travel schedule across the state.”

Other Republican candidates agreed with Walker's alarm Wednesday and pledged to double down on efforts to deliver clear messages to voters.

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“Governor Walker is right," said Jessica Ward, manager of state Sen. Leah Vukmir's U.S. Senate campaign. "Republicans must effectively convey our message so we have a senator who represents Wisconsin, not out-of-state elitists who make up the majority of Tammy Baldwin’s campaign contributions."

Republicans had solid advantages going into the race Tuesday, including more money, a compressed timeline and name recognition for Jarchow, said Mike Browne, deputy director of One Wisconsin Now, a liberal advocacy group.

"The full right-wing machine was deployed in the 10th, with Wisconsin and national groups running TV and radio ads and sending direct mail. Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, Jobs First Coalition, Republican State Leadership Committee, National Rifle Association and Wisconsin Realtors Association all spent money on Jarchow's behalf in the primary and/or general," he said. "Combined with the negative attitudes towards Republicans nationally and a strong effort by Dems to quickly pull together a credible campaign, the Republicans suffered an historic loss."

Another race indicating a shifting Wisconsin electorate is the 58th Assembly District, one of the most solidly Republican in the state. That seat opened after Bob Gannon's death in October.  

Republican Rick Gundrum won the seat Tuesday night, beating Democrat Dennis Degenhardt, 56 to 43 percent. But Democrats point out Degenhardt's showing was nearly 20 percentage points higher than Hillary Clinton's in 2016. She won only 26 percent of the vote in the district, according to figures  from Washington County. 

Those gains are significant, Dye said.

"Forty-three percent is not a victory on paper, but I think that was a victory for his message and Patty's message," said Dye. "The conclusion we draw is that Democratic values ... we talk about health care for all, tax fairness, strong public education, clean drinking water — Democratic values are Wisconsin values."

What has changed more than the packaging of the Democratic message and the execution of their campaigns is the reality of Republican wins, Dye said. 

"Now I think people understand how high the stakes are," she said. "2016 was a wake up call for Democrats and people are doing the work that is needed to put our values into action."

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Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.