Donald Trump’s victory last week completed an eight-year reversal of political power in Wisconsin as Democrats ceded more turf and Republicans pulled off two election feats once thought to be unattainable.
In November 2008, when Barack Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points, Democrats were in the driver’s seat. They controlled the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats, the state Senate and, for the first time in 16 years, the Assembly, having picked up 13 seats over two election cycles with wins in traditionally Republican rural parts of the state.
Now Republicans control the governor’s office, have their largest Assembly and Senate majorities in decades and for the first time since 1984 have won a presidential election here. And U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson became the first Republican since 1980 to win a Senate race during a presidential election.
Democrats offered various explanations for their latest collapse: Hillary Clinton had political baggage and didn’t excite the party’s base, her campaign didn’t devote enough resources to Wisconsin — Clinton herself became the first major party nominee since 1972 not to visit the state — noncompetitive legislative races dampened enthusiasm, and Republican changes to election law, such as a new photo ID requirement, kept some voters away.
Gov. Scott Walker, channeling Trump, told a conservative talk radio host Friday that the voter ID explanation was “just a load of crap” and that Clinton wasn’t an inspirational candidate for Milwaukee voters.
He chalked up Republican wins in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Florida to those states having GOP governors who have enacted popular laws and low unemployment rates.
“I think we conditioned people in our respective states that were once and still are battleground states to say, ‘It’s OK to vote Republican,’ because look at what we do,” Walker said.
Tuesday’s results showed how difficult it will be for Democrats to reclaim power before 2020, when the party in power will be able to redraw the state’s legislative district maps.
Republicans now control 64 Assembly seats and at least 20 Senate seats, having picked up an unexpected victory in Stevens Point and coming within a potential recount of knocking off Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling in La Crosse.
“We’ve got a major problem in terms of the white working class and the white middle class,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster. “For all the talk of the new American coalition, if we don’t win back northern and central and western Wisconsin on economic issues, we’re going to be out in the wilderness for awhile.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, laid much of the blame for his party’s thrashing on Republican redistricting after the 2010 tea party wave. But he said this year Trump appealed to those who have suffered from decades of economic stagnation with simple and clear answers that lacked substance, while Clinton tried to finesse solutions on things like trade that weren’t what certain voters wanted to hear.
“Many of them are justifiably angry voters when it comes to economics,” Pocan said. “We have better solutions, but we didn’t have better answers.”
Exit polling in Wisconsin conducted by Edison Research showed an electorate sharply divided on the economy, which the majority of voters (54 percent) said was the top issue in the election.
More than half of Clinton’s voters said the job situation in their area had improved over four years ago, while 45 percent of Trump’s voters said it had gotten worse.
Half of Wisconsin voters said trade with other countries results in fewer local jobs, and of those 63 percent voted for Trump.
Nearly half (49 percent) of Wisconsin voters said the Affordable Care Act went too far, with 81 percent of those voters backing Trump, and 49 percent also said the criminal justice system treats all people fairly, a group that went 68 percent for Trump.
The exit polling data also showed that the Marquette Law School Poll sample — which showed Clinton with a 6-point lead less than two weeks before the election — was not necessarily skewed, because it found voters breaking late for Trump, according to poll director Charles Franklin.
Clinton’s 47 percent support was identical to the poll, but Trump’s 48 percent result was a 7-point swing. Exit polls showed 14 percent of voters decided whom to vote for in the final week of the election, and those broke almost 2-1 for Trump.
The results offer some caution to the parties and politicians that “the right circumstances and the right candidates are capable of shifting the political alignment more than our ordinary, everyday politics would allow us to believe,” Franklin said.
“Both parties play up the rhetoric of, ‘I’ve got the permanent control’ or ‘I’ve got the secret to holding the permanent control,’” Franklin said. “The big picture here is that the public actually is changeable and the majorities are changeable.”
Go big or go home
Election results also showed that Clinton’s support dropped off considerably from Obama’s in 2012, by about a quarter-million votes, while Trump received about the same number of votes as 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Republican Party of Wisconsin executive director Mike Duffey said the results validated the Republican claim before the election that the party’s get-out-the-vote infrastructure was superior. The party more than doubled the number of doors knocked from 2012 and had 40 offices and 80 paid staff around the state, including new locations in places like St. Croix Falls and Rice Lake.
“I think it’s just another testament to the fact that Wisconsin Republicans are the best in the nation,” Duffey said. “We have nothing but optimism looking to 2018 and beyond.”
Republican strategist Bill McCoshen said if the GOP wants to stay in power, “they’ve got to keep solving common-man problems.”
“They can’t take their foot off the reform gas,” McCoshen said.
McCoshen said the biennial budget Walker introduces early next year has to improve on the shortcomings of the last one, which included big funding cuts for the University of Wisconsin System and hefty borrowing for roads. Republican lawmakers rewrote many provisions as Walker explored an ultimately unsuccessful run for president.
Former Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen, who is exploring a run for governor in 2018, said the state budget is one of several major events at the state and national level that will happen between now and the 2018 election.
At that point the shoe will be on the other foot, he said. Republicans will have to defend Trump’s policies, as they had to do with George W. Bush in 2002 when Democrat Jim Doyle won the governor’s race.
And whereas Obama’s eight years in office represented the status quo in 2016, Walker’s eight years in office will represent the status quo in 2018.
“They’re going to have a lot of things to defend,” Cullen said.
In order to win, Cullen said Democrats can’t just focus on turning out voters in Madison and Milwaukee. They should spend time touring small towns in rural parts of the state listening to the economic concerns of voters.
“(Those rural voters) don’t think Democrats care about them. They think we only care about public employees in Madison and Milwaukee,” Cullen said. “That’s not true, but the only way to change that is to go up there and listen.”
“We’ve got a major problem in terms of the white working class and the white middle class. ... If we don’t win back northern and central and western Wisconsin on economic issues, we’re going to be out in the wilderness for awhile.”Paul Maslin, Wisconsin