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Patty Schachtner

Senator-elect Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset

A rare win by a Democrat in a northwestern Wisconsin Senate district sent shock waves through the state and national political worlds Wednesday.

Democrats heralded the win in a district Republicans have held since 2001 as evidence of a building blue wave that could lead to more victories in November — including in the larger 7th Congressional District held by Republican Rep. Sean Duffy. Republicans sounded the alarm that they need to hone their message and cajole their grassroots supporters in order to maintain full control of state government.

“WAKE UP CALL: Can’t presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin. Help us share the good news,” Gov. Scott Walker tweeted along with half a dozen other similar tweets early Wednesday. His campaign later sent out a fundraising appeal warning “everything we have done is at risk if we don’t win in November.”

Walker also announced a corps of volunteer coordinators in all 72 counties to help with his re-election campaign and the Republican Party of Wisconsin announced a plan to double the number of field offices. Walker holds a significant fundraising advantage over a sprawling field of Democrats, but faces his first re-election with an unpopular Republican president in the White House.

Political observers and activists involved in the District 10 Senate race said several factors helped St. Croix County medical examiner Patty Schachtner defeat Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, in Tuesday’s special election.

Some pointed to a surge in Democratic enthusiasm ignited by the unpopularity of Republican President Donald Trump, whom Jarchow supported in 2016. Others said voters were tuned into local issues and angered by Jarchow’s sponsorship of bills that have reduced environmental protections and local zoning control.

“We absolutely believe local issues motivated people in this race,” said Staush Gruszynski, political director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “All of our communications were very positive about Patty and the impact she can have on the local environment. We heard a lot from our members about Jarchow’s anti-conservation background.”

Jeff Smith, an organizer for liberal advocacy group Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said efforts to clean up the Red Cedar Watershed have been hampered by bills Jarchow has championed limiting local zoning control.

“There is a lot of angst toward Jarchow because of his anti-environment/pro-corporate stance,” Smith said.

Jarchow didn’t respond to a request for comment, though his campaign manager Mitch Sands said everyone the campaign engaged through door-to-door campaigning responded positively.

“People we talked to were excited to vote for Adam, but in the end not enough of our people came out,” Sands said. “Coming into the fall … we’re going to have a lot of work to do to hold our seats.”

Republicans have held the seat since former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, whom Walker recently appointed to his cabinet, was first elected in 2000. Before that, Democrat Alice Clausing held the seat since 1992.

Jim Villa, a former Walker political adviser who worked on Harsdorf’s 2000 campaign, said Tuesday’s result wasn’t the bellwether some claim it to be because the district includes many independent-minded voters who care about local issues. He noted Harsdorf won by tying Clausing to Madison liberals and Schachtner was better able to connect with voters on issues such as agriculture and the environment.

Villa, the head of a real estate trade association, said there are two takeaways from the result: “Local issues matter and Republicans have to re-evaluate how they’re talking about them district by district and making sure they are connecting with voters more intimately (and) is there an enthusiasm gap and how do you work to bridge that for the fall?”

Significant victory margin

Schachtner won with 54.6 percent of the vote to Jarchow’s 44.2 percent, a remarkable victory given Harsdorf won the district 14 months ago by a 26-point margin.

Turnout in the special election was a quarter of what it was in 2016, though Republican strategist Brian Fraley said Republicans tend to do better in low-turnout elections.

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Fraley called Schachtner’s win “the most significant political development in Wisconsin since Walker won the recalls.”

“The Republicans don’t understand what the Trump victory was,” Fraley said. “It wasn’t about their agenda, because he didn’t run on their agenda. It was about Trump. So it doesn’t transfer. The Trump positives don’t transfer to the Republican candidate, but the Trump negatives do clearly.”

Schachtner’s victory boosts state Democrats who have been struggling to make gains since Republicans took over state government in 2010.

In 2016, Trump won the district 55 percent to 38 percent; in 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district 52 percent to 46 percent for former President Barack Obama.

UW-River Falls political science professor Neil Kraus said the district, part of the growing Twin Cities suburbs but still dominated by rural towns, has become more conservative over time.

On Wednesday morning, the district was the talk of the national political media, with The Washington Post noting the race is different than a surprise Democratic win in last month’s Alabama Senate race because Jarchow was a credible candidate and conservative groups had spent heavily to help him win the seat. It was the first legislative race in which conservative group Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin had endorsed a candidate.

“Here I am watching Morning Joe (on MSNBC) and they’re talking about the Senate District 10 race — it’s remarkable,” Kraus said. “It’s interesting because the quote that’s getting national play from Schachtner is this notion of her being kind. This notion of being decent, being kind, sounds radical, but it seems like a lot of folks are sort of looking for that.”

Democrats celebrated the win as a sign of a wave of Democratic support overturning seats held by conservatives, including in the governor’s office and on the state Supreme Court — both of which are up for election this year.

“I’d attribute this win to a great candidate, a robust field program we ran, and Patty’s message resonating with voters who are dissatisfied with the Republican agenda,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. “For someone who claims to be unintimidated, Gov. Walker’s unhinged late night tweet storm shows he’s worried for what’s to come this fall.”

Democrats also credited Schachtner, a Somerset School Board member, with running a positive campaign that highlighted health care and education issues. She’s also a bear hunter who appeared on a 2006 episode of the reality TV show “Wife Swap.”

Jarchow’s supporters attacked Schachtner for a more than decade-old court case involving an unpaid school lunch bill, but in the end the attack line proved ineffective.

Open Senate seats

Republicans still control the state Senate 18-14, but even before the special election Walker announced he wouldn’t fill a seat in northeastern Wisconsin vacated by Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, as required by law. Democrats on Wednesday urged Walker to hold special elections for that seat and another vacated by Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi.

Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg said if special elections were held the seats wouldn’t be filled until after the Legislature adjourns for the year, so they would be a waste of money.

Fraley, the Republican strategist, said the Lasee seat as well as those held by Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, could be at risk for Republicans in November.

“The state Senate majority is definitely in play in the fall,” Fraley said.

Senate Majority Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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