The Midterms: Wisconsin

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party activist Manilan Houle, of Minneapolis, is the first person waiting in line outside a polling station in downtown Minneapolis on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, on the first day of early voting in Minnesota in the 2018 midterm elections. Minnesota law allowed in-person voting to begin Friday — a full 46 days early — making it the first battleground state to begin casting actual votes in the broader fight for control of Congress. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

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Promoted from the diaries by streiff. Promotion does not imply endorsement.
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In this year’s Senate race, Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin faces state senator Leah Vukmir on the GOP side.  Baldwin sports a decent 47% approval rating in the state against a 36% disapproval from residents.  Wisconsin is one of the most notoriously unpredictable states when it comes to politics.  Essentially a blue state, it flipped to Trump in 2016, its Republican governor has won two elections and a recall, and its Congressional delegation favors the GOP 5-3.  The polls leading into Election Day say one thing, then voters often surprise.

Early on, Koch brothers-aligned groups spent heavily against Baldwin attempting to tie her to an opioid problem at the VA’s Tomah clinic where a patient died.  Baldwin responded with ads featuring the victim’s family singing her praises.  Vukmir has recently resurrected those accusations.

Leah Vukmir had to go through a tough primary against Kevin Nicholson.  It was an expensive race where Vukmir had the support of the Wisconsin Republican establishment and the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce.  Nicholson ran as an outsider, but had difficulty explaining away his former ties to the Democratic Party.  If Vukmir was expecting help from Trump, she is mistaken.  During the primary, video surfaced of her calling Trump “offensive” on many fronts.  Further, although Trump did make an appearance in Wisconsin, he has a 41% approval rating in the state- not toxic, but really not helpful either.

With Baldwin up an average of 11.8 points in the polls, a surprise Vukmir victory may be asking too much.  Thus, this writer is putting this one in the Democratic column.

Before we get to the all-important gubernatorial race, there is one House race of the interest.  Republican incumbent and current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is retiring leaving this an open race in the First District.  It will feature Republican Kevin Steil against Democrat Randy Bryce.  In Bryce, the Democrats believe they have an ideal candidate for this southern Wisconsin district given his blue collar appeal.  However, he has been portrayed as a deadbeat dad prompting Bryce to respond with an ad from his ex-wife contradicting those claims.  Democrats further explain it away as him only owing $1,300 in child support payments.

It is also a fact he has been arrested nine times which they again explain away as the follies of youth and his two most recent arrests being of the civil disobedience ilk during protests in Madison and elsewhere.  Perhaps the most damaging fact is that his brother, James- a police officer- recently announced his support for the Republican Kevin Steil over Bryce’s comments that “police are terrorists.”

Given the conservative leanings of this district where Trump in 2016 actually improved on Romney’s 2012 performance, it would appear the Republicans will defend this seat successfully.  Available polling shows a close race.  But, in the end the partisan 5-3 GOP advantage should remain intact, especially since the popular Paul Ryan (in his district) has supported Steil all the way.

That notion of unpredictability enters the equation most strongly in the gubernatorial race which features incumbent Scott Walker going for his third term against former state education official Tony Evers on the Democratic side.  As everyone is aware, eight years ago, Scott Walker surprisingly won his first term, then had to endure and win a recall election.  In 2014, he was counted out nearing Election Day, but pulled off another solid victory.  He finds himself in the same predicament this year.

Education, taxes, roads, prisons and jobs dominate this race.  That is good since they are legitimate issues without the background noise of real or manufactured scandal.  In recent months, four state officials, some in the Walker cabinet, have resigned with critical assessments of Walker.  The most recent is Paul Jadin who resigned from Walker’s Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and has endorsed Evers.  One former official even wrote a book accusing Walker of almost leading him to the edge of suicide.  However, most of this is background noise as Walker hammers Evers over school safety.

Walker claims that as a state education official, Evers failed to act to remove dangerous, predatory teachers from the classroom.  Specifically, one had apparently downloaded pornography in the classroom, another was literally caught with his pants down, and a third solicited sex with a student through social media.  The Democrats and their allies explain this away as Evers not having any authority to do anything, or that these are old events, or that the courts intervened and restored a suspended teacher to their job in one instance.  The problem is that these explanations and nuances fall on deaf ears and the visuals created of these predatory teachers, while Evers was a state education official and whether he had the power to do anything or not, are more visceral than the explanations.

Evers has made a proposal to decrease the state’s prison population by up to 50% giving Walker another opportunity to portray him as too risky for public safety.  Regardless, Evers himself had to backtrack and admit the proposal would not meet its intended target, but only slow down the current rate of incarceration.  On the education front, in 2017 Evers himself praised Scott Walker for education funding increases, but today attacks him for the opposite.

Democratic hopes may be up here in Wisconsin given the probability they will retain that Senate seat, that there is an open Republican-held House seat within their sights, and Walker appears vulnerable.  We have seen Walker down in the polls before and surge to victory come Election Day.  He currently trails by an average of 4.7 points and sports a 42% approval rating.  The Democrats are also quick to point out that 54% of primary voters were Democratic.  They fail to mention that the Democratic primary was decidedly more competitive than the GOP primary.

Although this race will be revisited next week at the conclusion of this series, at this point this writer does not foresee anything changing in Wisconsin this year.

The numbers after this entry are:

US Senate 48-40 Republican, US House 175-172 Democratic, and Governors 27-17 Republican.

Next: Another Upper Midwest state- Ohio.