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Amid national gains and with an unpopular GOP president, Wisconsin Democrats are gaining hope
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Amid national gains and with an unpopular GOP president, Wisconsin Democrats are gaining hope

From the 2018 Wisconsin governor's race series

Strong Democratic showings in elections across the country last week, rooted in the party’s ire at Republican President Donald Trump, have Democrats in Wisconsin saying maybe — just maybe — 2018 will be when their fortunes finally improve.

The response from Wisconsin Republicans? We’ve heard those predictions before, and look where we stand.

Republicans also predict their turnout and fundraising machines could help them weather a national election climate favoring Democrats, should one materialize in 2018.

Democrats won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey last week and made legislative gains there and in other states. More surprising than the winners of many of those races — Democrats were favored in both governor’s races — were the margins by which Democrats won.

The results emboldened Democrats here in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker will seek a third term next November and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a second. All 99 state Assembly seats will be on the ballot, as will 17 of 33 state Senate seats.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said during Thursday’s floor debate that the results “showed a rejection of the Trump-Walker agenda.”

“The same excitement that led to a wave of Democratic victories this week is driving our recruitment efforts and grassroots organizing here in Wisconsin,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement.

Republicans and Democrats acknowledge much can change between now and Election Day 2018.

The electorates in New Jersey and Virginia also differ from Wisconsin. The states are more racially diverse, which traditionally benefits Democrats, and have higher rates of college degree attainment — a demographic in which Democrats have made recent gains.

Still, the degree to which Democrats outpaced expectations last week was no outlier; it matched many of the elections held earlier in 2017. It also followed a trend going back decades in which the party out of power in the White House often fares well in midterm elections.

Trump’s unpopularity could exacerbate that. The Real Clear Politics average of polls on Friday found 38.3 percent of respondents approving of Trump’s performance, with 56.9 percent disapproving.

Wisconsin GOP consultant Brian Fraley said anyone predicting a Democratic wave election in 2018 is speaking prematurely.

“But candidates would be foolish to look at what happened,” Fraley said, “and say it doesn’t matter.”

Democratic women eye runs for office

Erin Forrest, director of Emerge Wisconsin, which recruits and trains female Democratic candidates, said Trump is motivating Democratic women to consider running for office. She predicted Trump’s unpopularity will create opportunities for all Democratic candidates next year.

“Thirty percent of people will stick with” Trump, Forrest said. “That leaves 70 percent. That’s a lot to work with.”

Emerge Wisconsin operates a six-month training program for Democratic women seriously considering running for state or local office.

The program is graduating 78 women in 2017, an annual record for Emerge and more than three times the typical graduating class size, Forrest said.

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Sachin Chheda, a Wisconsin Democratic consultant, said opportunities for Democratic pickups in 2018 can be found in the Milwaukee suburbs — long the state’s Republican stronghold. In races Tuesday and throughout 2017, Democrats made gains in suburban districts in large metro areas.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week added to its list of target districts two Wisconsin districts that extend into suburban Milwaukee: the 1st, represented by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, and the 6th, represented by Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah.

Chheda said Democrats are hearing from plenty of potential candidates exploring runs for office, even in areas that lean Republican.

“Campaigns are getting organized to run the kinds of campaigns that can capitalize on a national wave,” Chheda said.

Fraley, a prominent Trump critic within the Wisconsin GOP, said Republicans “don’t need to embrace” Trump but need not “take potshots” at him either. Fraley added that Republicans in Wisconsin are positioned better than their counterparts in other states due to their vaunted turnout operation.

Wisconsin “Democrats have opportunity in 2018, but I am skeptical they have the ability to seize that,” Fraley said.

Vos: ‘Very few’ implications for Wis.

Scot Ross, director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, said the glut of Democrats vying to unseat Walker shows the party’s enthusiasm about 2018.

Candidates include state Superintendent Tony Evers, former Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, former Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Mike McCabe, Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, and Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin also is considering a run.

In the U.S. Senate race, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, and businessman Kevin Nicholson are running for the GOP nod against Baldwin.

Ross said Democrats need the right message to motivate voters, particularly Generation X and Millennial voters.

“Democrats have to have an economic message for people younger than baby boomers,” Ross said.

If Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is worried about Democrats making a dent in his party’s 64-seat majority, its biggest in six decades, he’s not showing it.

Vos, R-Rochester, said Thursday that he felt Tuesday’s results have “very few” implications for 2018 elections in Wisconsin.

In the Virginia legislative elections last week, Vos said many of the Democrats that defeated GOP incumbents ran in districts that voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In Wisconsin, just three state Assembly Republicans hold seats that were carried by Clinton: Reps. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield, who’s running for state Senate next year, Jim Ott of Mequon and Todd Novak of Dodgeville.

None of the Republican-held state Senate seats that will be on the ballot in 2018 was carried by Clinton.

Vos added that Democrats predicted they would make gains in Wisconsin in the last three elections. Yet, he said, Republicans continued to fare surprisingly well.

“I don’t know what we would do any differently,” Vos said. “Our state’s economy is in a good place, our budget is balanced and we’ve had electoral success.

“I think most people in Wisconsin say: ‘Keep the pedal to the metal and keep doing what you’re doing.’”

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