Election 2016 leaves Wisconsin Democrats searching for answers

Wisconsin Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan and Gwen Moore and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, are searching for answers after a difficult 2016 election.

A handful of Democrats contemplating a run for governor in 2018 are starting to fan out across the state in search of answers to their continued woes at the ballot box.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said a surge of new voters who supported President-elect Donald Trump and a number of Democrats who decided not to vote are key reasons they lost an election that was supposed to form the foundation of a comeback.

“My message to the Dems is that turnout matters,” Vinehout said. “The campaign, the candidate and the message matters.”

Even though Republicans have historically done well in midterm elections when turnout is lower than presidential elections, Democrats believe Gov. Scott Walker will be vulnerable in 2018 if he decides to run for a third term.

Just as Republicans rode a wave of opposition to a Democrat in the White House in 2010, Democrats hope voters surprised and angered by Trump’s election will be energized in 2018.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin — whose 2012 win was one of the Democrats’ few bright spots since 2010 — will face re-election.

“Of course sometimes tradition holds and sometimes it doesn’t. Clearly, 2016 was a unique and unusual year,” Milwaukee-based Democratic strategist Sachin Chheda said. “We’re not going to know for a long time whether there’s been a realignment or if 2016 is an aberration. It’s going to take data analysis and it’s also going to take the next year of politics to play out for us to know.”

Several Democrats are considering a run for governor, though there is no obvious candidate to challenge Walker at this point, and some suggested it’s entirely possible the nominee will be someone who isn’t being discussed right now.

Democratic National Committee member Jason Rae said the four names he hears the most are Vinehout, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, State Rep. Dana Wachs, a lawyer from Eau Claire, and Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, who won the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2014 but lost to Republican Brad Schimel.

Also contemplating a run is retired state Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who said he expects to make an announcement in early 2017.

He said if Walker runs he will be formidable because “he’s the incumbent governor and he’ll have a ton of money.”

Cullen said he plans to tour the state over the next year to find out more about why so many voters backed Trump.

“It was a change election,” he said. “(Trump) was the change candidate and (Hillary Clinton) was stuck being the status quo candidate. If I’m the candidate I’m going to be a change candidate.”

Happ and Parisi both said they are weighing their options. Happ recently won a third term to a law enforcement position in a rural county, which she sees as a potential selling point. Parisi is running for re-election in the spring and has talked up Dane County’s economic development strength as a model for the state.

“We have to do some soul-searching about why we’re losing voters,” Happ said. “Not just talk to them, but listen to them to respond to what their concerns are.”

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin also will hold a leadership election in early June. Current chairwoman Martha Laning has announced she plans to seek re-election, but she may face challengers. Dane County Democratic Party chairman Mike Basford and Glendale mayor and former AFT-Wisconsin president Bryan Kennedy both said they are considering a run.

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