Next Tuesday’s special Senate election in northwestern Wisconsin will be the first indicator of whether a surge in Democratic electoral success last year around the country is coming to Wisconsin in 2018.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, and a tumultuous first year in office in which his job approval rating plummeted, Democrats received more votes than expected in state and federal special elections last year, even in races they lost, according to multiple reports.
There were 98 special legislative elections last year across the country, with Democrats picking up 11 seats held by Republicans, according to election-tracking website ballotpedia.com. That was the biggest gain for Democrats in at least seven years.
The political number-crunchers at fivethirtyeight.com reviewed the 2017 results and previous voting history in each district and found the Democratic vote total in special elections was 12 points higher than in previous elections.
Pollsters at ALG Research, a Washington-based research company that works with Democrats including Barack Obama’s campaign, drew a similar conclusion. They found Democrats in legislative special elections last year improved upon Obama’s 2012 vote percentage difference versus Mitt Romney in those same districts by 6 points and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote percentage difference versus Donald Trump in those districts by 12.1 points.
It’s unclear whether that Democratic voter enthusiasm will translate to a win in Wisconsin’s 10th Senate District. Obama lost the district by 6 points in 2012 and Clinton lost it by 17 points in 2016.
Next week’s special election pits Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, against St. Croix County medical examiner and Somerset School Board member Patty Schachtner, a Democrat from the town of Star Prairie who appeared on a 2006 episode of the reality TV show “Wife Swap.” Libertarian candidate Brian Corriea is also on the ballot.
The winner on Tuesday will fill the seat vacated by Sheila Harsdorf, whom Gov. Scott Walker recently appointed secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Harsdorf had held the seat since 2000, including successfully beating back a recall attempt in 2011. She won the seat by 18.5 points in 2012 and 26.4 points in 2016.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said the race is competitive for Democrats based on internal polling conducted last year. The State Senate Democratic Committee declined to release the poll, but executive director Jenni Dye said it showed Democrats were much more likely to vote than in a typical off-cycle election.
Shilling said an increase in activism, particularly among women, in the wake of the Trump election is improving Democrats’ chances.
“The electorate is churning right now because of the policies and failed leadership of President Trump and the bullying kind of message that he sends out when he attacks people and critics,” Shilling said. “Wisconsin is next on our special election calendar here in this country, and we want to build on that momentum and enthusiasm.”
Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said “while Democrats can talk about out-of-state energy all they want, the only voters who matter in this race are in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin Republicans have a proven record of success in turning out voters, and Adam Jarchow’s record of helping create jobs and cut taxes will be the right message for them on Election Day,” Zimmerman said.
Money enters race
The candidates have raised and spent a lot of money so far, almost on par with what was spent on the 2016 race, according to campaign finance reports filed this week. Jarchow has reported raising about $240,000, plus loaning himself $50,000, and Schachtner has reported raising about $180,000.
The race is drawing a noticeable amount of outside spending with a barrage of radio and digital ads and mailers targeting district voters.
Conservative group Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin is taking the unusual step of buying $50,000 in radio and digital ads backing Jarchow and could spend another $5,000 to $10,000 on mailers and canvassing, executive director Eric Bott said. It’s the first time it has engaged in express advocacy — meaning it is advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate with advertising that must be disclosed to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission — in a state legislative race, he said.
Bott said the group has already spent about $50,000 on so-called “issue ads,” which don’t explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates and don’t have to be disclosed.
“We have an opportunity to make a difference,” Bott said. “Jarchow is the foremost champion of constitutional rights in the Legislature today. … Those are things we think are really important. We want to see more legislators take on those issues.”
The Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund, which backs Democrats, has spent $30,000 on online advertising supporting Schachtner and opposing Jarchow, according to a campaign filing with the state. Postcardstovoters.org, a new national Democratic group that mobilizes volunteers around the country to send personalized get-out-the-vote postcards to Democratic voters in the district, is also active in the race.
And at least two other groups, the Republican State Leadership Committee and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce have combined for $78,000 in issue ads, according to One Wisconsin Now, a liberal group that tracks spending on paid election media.
Neil Kraus, chairman of the political science department at UW-River Falls, said at this point every race for state or national office will be some kind of referendum on Trump. He said the district has become increasingly conservative over time with more upper-middle-income white voters moving into the St. Croix County suburbs of Minneapolis.
“If the Democrats are even in the ballpark, it’s not a great sign for the Republican Party,” he said.