Last week's election results for the state Supreme Court, in which Milwaukee County Judge Rebecca Dallet, who was backed by Democrats, handily beat Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock, who was supported by Republicans, led to a deluge of analysis about what it means for the fall general election and whether a #bluewave, as Gov. Scott Walker tweeted last week, really is on the horizon.
The Cap Times spoke to University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Canon, who studies Wisconsin politics and campaigns, about the election and what might be ahead.
What surprised you most about Tuesday’s results?
The thing that surprised me in the Supreme Court was the size of the victory, how well Dallet did in a lot of the counties that Trump carried pretty decisively. This is consistent with what we’ve seen in a series of special elections now around the country, in Pennsylvania, to Alabama, to Georgia, to Missouri, including the special elections for the (state) Senate over in La Crosse.
In each case, we’ve seen a surge in the Democratic vote, even in some cases where they lost the election.
The number of counties Dallet carried that Trump had carried in 2016, the Democrats did about 15 points better in those counties than they did in 2016. That’s a big swing.
How will this translate to the general election?
It’s hard to know. The spring elections are always much lower turnout. It’s hard to know how both the special elections we’ve seen around the country and spring elections how those translate into votes in November. One thing we’ve seen that is very consistent is this substantial swing towards Democrats that had been carried by Republicans in the past.
So what’s going on with the swing?
Two things: one is that independents who voted heavily for Trump in 2016 are flipping, the secondary thing is the enthusiasm gap. This is something Gov. Walker pointed to on Wednesday after the election. He said this is showing the potential “blue wave” that’s coming.
That’s what we have seen in the past, voters who are more motivated are the ones who are concerned and upset, so you have this enthusiasm gap right now. Democrats and independents appear to be more motivated to go to the polls than some Republicans who supported Donald Trump in 2016 but now are having second thoughts and are not motivated in going to the polls. The spring election was the next data point in that.
How would you define a #bluewave?
A wave election is an election when the out party does much better than they had in the previous several elections across the board. The image is it’s this wave sweeping the country. The most recent example would be in 2010 when Republicans just crushed Democrats in Obama’s midterm election.
Republicans ran on that issue and they just swept the elections and ended up taking control of a lot of state Legislatures, the House and Senate. That’s what a wave election is like, when the opposition party of the president ends up taking dozens and dozens of House seats and recaptures control of the governorship and state Legislatures and that is what Scott Walker is warning against. There could be the Democratic version of that 2010 red wave.
Should Walker be worried? Where do you think he’s vulnerable?
The point I think he’s definitely going to emphasize is the strength of the economy. The unemployment rate is at or below record lows now. The economy appears to be pretty strong in Wisconsin.
The vulnerability is twofold:
One is on this point of polarization and the politics of divisiveness. Scott Walker is the politician most responsible for introducing that divisiveness into Wisconsin politics. When Thompson was governor, when Doyle was governor, we had partisan politics but nothing like we’ve seen since 2012 with Act 10 and hundreds of thousands of people protesting. That’s what brought divisiveness to this state, his policies for the last eight years.
For him to turn on the Democrats now to say they’re introducing divisiveness, that is going to backfire. People will see that as not being a very strong point for him to be making. To rail against divisiveness in Democrats, that is going to ring pretty hollow to most Wisconsin voters.
The second point of vulnerability is attachment to Donald Trump. Midterm elections historically are a referendum on the president. There is a national force that goes beyond anything that is relevant for state politics. So even if the Wisconsin economy is strong and things seem to be going well here, Donald Trump is so unpopular Republicans in Wisconsin could still be really hurt by Donald Trump and the blue wave. To the extent Scott Walker is tied to President Trump, that will definitely hurt him. The president’s party will likely lose seats in the House election so the only question is, "How big is that blue tide going to be? Is it going to be a ripple or a tidal wave?" Right now it looks like a good year for Democrats. (In the House) it looks like it will be a good year for Democrats. We do know for sure Democrats will pick up seats this year for sure.
The Senate is a different matter because Democrats are defending so many seats but they’re also likely to pick up several.
Do you think Democrats strategically are upping their game, running better candidates and campaigns, or is the swing more attributable to the context of today’s events?
I think it’s that the voters are just fired up, both the Democrats and Republicans in our state are. So the thing that’s different this year seems to me is that Democrat voters are more motivated than Republican voters. I think there’s nothing the party organizations can do about that, really.
If we end up in an all-out trade war with China, how might that play a role here with our agricultural products?
That is something that will really hurt rural America and other agricultural products will be seriously hurt by a major trade war with China. If that happens, and the rhetoric changes almost every day and it’s hard to know what will actually happen, but if that does happen that cuts deep into Scott Walker’s base. If he is seen as being tied to Trump and being tied to that trade war, that could really hurt him. It might hurt, too, because he has been supportive of Trump in the past and voters could potentially take that out on Scott Walker.
If China slaps a 50 percent tariff on agricultural imports — they’re one of our bigger customers for a lot of reasons — those are markets we couldn’t replace. That would be a major blow to American farmers. If that happens, we have no idea how it’s going to play out, but it’s something to keep an eye on for sure.