Badger State Blues

Published April 12, 2018

World Magazine

We have another blue tsunami warning. Rebecca Dallet’s 12-point margin over Michael Screnock in Wisconsin’s recent Supreme Court race has reignited talk that November will see a Democratic landslide. The evidence from that race, while good news for Democrats, is more nuanced.

Despite its officially nonpartisan status, Wisconsin Supreme Court races are known to follow partisan leanings. Thus, the more liberal candidate’s massive win, in a state that Trump won, and which incumbent Republican governor Scott Walker has carried three times, adds more fuel to the fire for those arguing that the Democrats will sweep the fall midterms. But there’s reason to wonder how much this one election supports those claims.

Turnout is the biggest reason for doubt. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert pointed out, just under 1 million people voted in the April 3 contest. Fall gubernatorial contests normally draw more than twice that number. Moreover, turnout in this race was much higher in liberal and Democratic counties than in Republican ones. This suggests that much of the margin was artificially high, driven by the massive Democratic enthusiasm we have seen in special elections across the country since Trump’s inauguration. That enthusiasm may be counteracted by GOP enthusiasm at a regularly scheduled statewide race.

That’s exactly what happened in last fall’s regular elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Democrats did well in both states, but the turnout gap between Republicans and Democrats was much lower than in the specials. That fact meant that Democratic gains over Hillary Clinton’s margins in identical areas tended to be small, not the large shifts exhibited in the Wisconsin race and many specials. These data point to a much smaller Democratic tide, one more consistent with a moderate midterm victory than with a 2010-style wipeout.

But that does not mean the GOP should ignore the Wisconsin results. An ominous fact emerges once one looks at county-level returns. President Trump won by attracting millions of people who voted for President Obama. Gov. Walker won each of his three races by doing the same thing. The conservative Screnock, however, failed to do that in the Supreme Court race.

We can see this by looking at two regions of the state, the rural southwest and the Fox River Valley. Rural counties in the southwestern part of the state tend to vote Democratic. Trump carried 23 counties that Obama had won in 2012, many of them in this area. Scott Walker also carried 19 of these counties in his 2014 reelection. Screnock carried only eight, and those were the more Republican-leaning places that Obama had only narrowly carried. This implies that the blue-collar swing voter whose support decides Badger State elections has moved back to the Democrats.

The normally Republican Fox River Valley results support this notion. The Fox River Valley covers the middle northeast of the state between Lake Michigan and Oshkosh. Voters here are also blue-collar, although more Republican-leaning, and both Trump and Walker carried every county in their races by large margins. Dallet, however, won four of these counties in her race, and lost the others by much smaller margins than liberal Democrats normally do.

She even outperformed President Obama, who carried only one of these counties in 2012 while losing others that she carried by narrow margins. She also won six other counties with similar characteristics that Trump and Walker won and which other Republicans normally win. This again suggests that the blue-collar swing voter either has switched allegiance or just didn’t care enough to vote.

Incumbent presidents normally lose seats in midterm races. Lots can change between now and November. But right now, Wisconsin’s results are consistent with an expectation of sizable, but not catastrophic, losses for Trump’s GOP come fall.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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