The Capital Times book

Don’t take it from Wisconsin Democrats when they say last week’s surprise win in a special election for the state Senate signals that Republican Gov. Scott Walker is in political trouble. Take it from Walker, the political careerist who crashed and burned as a 2016 presidential contender but has indicated that he’s willing to settle for another gubernatorial term.

After Democrat Patty Schachtner won a seat representing a district that backed Donald Trump by a 55-38 margin in 2016, Walker tweeted: “Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin.”

Walker is not giving up. He’ll still raise plenty of money this year from the out-of-state campaign donors, including the Koch brothers, who have always been his most ardent supporters. The anti-union zealot will still engage in the relentlessly negative campaigning that he has always resorted to in tough races. But in an election season that looks like it could be defined by disenchantment with Donald Trump and his enablers, the governor is suddenly sounding — and acting — politically vulnerable.

And rightly so. Schachtner‘s successful run drew a template for Democrats who want to get rid of Walker and his legislative toadies.

To start with, it surfed a wave of disgust with a failed president. “President Donald Trump — along with Speaker Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker, who support and prop him up — are toxically unpopular and divisive,” the state Democratic Party declared the night of the election. “Republicans focus on ultra-wealthy donors, rather than opening doors to opportunities and building strong communities for the rest of us.”

Carolyn Fiddler, a national Democratic analyst who tracks legislative races across the country, pointed out that the pattern of Democratic wins in the states, which took shape after the Republican president’s election, continues. “Democrats are still winning Republican seats! Even when Republicans run in ‘safe’ and extremely gerrymandered districts and spend boatloads more money than the Democrat!” Fiddler explained on Jan. 16. “Tonight’s win is Democrats’ 34th state legislative pickup of the cycle.”

Given that Wisconsin Republicans have used extreme gerrymandering to secure their positions, Schachtner’s win was a particularly inspiring indication of the extent to which that disenchantment is shifting political sentiments. “(Schachtner’s) message of building up our communities and bridging our differences clearly had an impact as we saw some of the best numbers Democrats have seen in this district in decades,” said state Sen. Jen Shilling, the Democratic leader in the chamber. “The results from today show that Wisconsin is ready for a change in Madison.”

That’s true for legislative contests, where Democrats have narrowed the Republican advantage in the Senate to 18-14, with one vacancy. It’s also true for this fall’s gubernatorial race. Western Wisconsin’s suburban and rural 10th District has given Walker solid backing in his gubernatorial runs. It has also given Republican legislative candidates overwhelming support — re-electing the incumbent state senator, whose resignation sparked the Jan. 16 special election, by 26 percentage points in 2016. But now the district’s voters have rejected a well-financed Walker ally (state Rep. Adam Jarchow) in favor of Schachtner, a Democrat who won 55 percent of the vote.

The result that shocked Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans came after a campaign in which Schachtner touted her work as the St. Croix County medical examiner, her service on the Somerset School Board, and her tenure on the the board of directors for Turning Point Wisconsin, a center for victims of sexual and domestic violence.

Schachtner’s campaign highlighted her support for public education and public services — which have suffered on Walker’s watch — and ripped the governor for misdirecting economic development spending.

Walker worked with Trump last year on a much-criticized scheme to lure a manufacturing facility being developed by the Taiwan-based Foxconn corporation to House Speaker Paul Ryan’s congressional district in southeastern Wisconsin — with more than $3 billion in tax incentives and promises to soften environmental protections.

Schlachter explained during the campaign: “I want to prioritize investment in jobs, businesses and entrepreneurs right here in western Wisconsin. For too long, politicians have failed to put our local schools, roads and communities first while special interests in other areas of the state have received large sums of taxpayer money. Instead of giving foreign corporations and wealthy donors massive tax breaks and special exemptions from environmental protections, I will work to ensure that our communities receive our fair share of state investments.”

The Democrat promised: “I will also fight to retain local control so that our communities can decide what is best for our growth, instead of letting out-of-state corporations damage our clean land, air, and water for their own profit.”

You can bet Scott Walker’s Democratic challenger — who will be selected this summer from a wide field of contenders — will deliver a similar message to Wisconsinites this fall.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. Nichols is the co-author, along with Dave Zweifel, of the new book "The Capital Times: A Proudly Radical Newspaper's Century Long Fight for Justice and Peace," published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It's available on the Historical Society website, and at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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