Gov. Scott Walker called the results a “wake-up call for Republicans in Wisconsin.”
But the alarm has been sounding for the past year — long before a state Senate special election delivered a solidly Republican seat to Wisconsin Democrats on Tuesday.
Since 2016, Democrats have outperformed Hillary Clinton’s performance in more than two-thirds of state legislative special elections across the nation. And in the six congressional special elections held in 2017, Democrats overperformed in five of them — and that list doesn’t even the December pickup of a Senate seat in ruby-red Alabama.
Democrats also made gains in off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia — coming within a single vote in one district, or a random drawing of lots, from erasing the GOP majority in the Virginia state House of Delegates.
All of it, together with the party’s latest victory in a rural and suburban seat in western Wisconsin that backed Trump by 17 points, is unnerving Republicans from Madison to Washington.
“This special election hit the Wisconsin GOP like an electric shock,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host in Wisconsin. “In particular, they’re very worried about women. They are losing women, suburban women, and if you extrapolate across the country, you have a real problem.”
Wisconsin wasn’t the GOP’s only worry Tuesday — legislative special elections in two other states swung heavily in Democrats’ favor. While Republicans managed to hold on to those seats in Iowa and South Carolina, the GOP’s margin of victory shrank by more than a dozen points in each of them.
In western Wisconsin, where Republicans were fretting about slippage in suburban districts, the party suffered a big loss in rural counties — places where Trump romped in 2016. Democrat Patty Schachtner, the chief medical examiner for St. Croix County, won by more than 10 percentage points — a 28-point shift over the 2016 results — in a district dotted by dairy farms and a Minneapolis bedroom community.
Even Paul Ryan, the House Speaker who hails from Wisconsin, acknowledged the defeat back home. “Typically, we have held this seat,” but “we lost this seat last night, so, yeah, we — I think we should pay attention to it,” he said on Wednesday.
Democrats, who must chip away at a 24-seat deficit in the House, believe Schachtner’s victory signals opportunity in blue-collar, predominately white districts that turned toward Trump in 2016.
“It helps make the case that these rural seats — in upstate New York, in the upper Midwest — are still good places to invest in,” said John Hagner, a Democratic consultant.
Schachtner, who was significantly outspent on TV and radio by her Republican opponent, won two of the four rural counties that comprise the district. She also beat GOP St. Rep. Adam Jarchow by 11 points in St. Croix County, a suburb that feeds the Twin Cities. St. Croix County backed Trump by 19 points last cycle.
“The most troubling sign is that we lost St. Croix County,” said Rohn Bishop, Fond du Lac County GOP chairman. “If we lose that county in November, we’ll get slaughtered statewide. We’re losing college-educated and suburban voters — while rural voters didn’t show up, which all is troubling to me.”
Dan Kohl, a Democrat who’s challenging Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) in a congressional seat that mirrors the state Senate district, said he was “not shocked” by Tuesday’s results because “it jibes with the impulse I’ve been experiencing on the ground.”
“This president made a lot of promises,” Kohl added. “And a lot of the support he attracted was over this message of change, and people perceive that’s not happening.”
Following Schachtner’s victory on Tuesday night, Democrats crowed that it was the 34th GOP-held state legislative seat the party has flipped since Trump’s election. But more telling is how the party has performed across the board.
According to the liberal blog Daily Kos Elections, in 70 special elections in 2017 — both for Congress and state legislatures — Democrats did, on average, 10 points better than their 2016 presidential vote.
“No single special election alone is predictive of the midterms, but 34 state legislative seats that have flipped, on top of the margins in Virginia and the win in Alabama, show a pretty clear trend of voters just not being that into Republicans right now,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. "I wouldn’t want to be a Republican in a district that Trump won by less than 17 points.”
Schachtner’s win also sheds light on how Democratic challengers can make inroads in conservative-leaning seats: Don’t talk about Trump or Ryan.
“It wasn’t Trump or Paul Ryan’s race, it was District 10’s race,” Schachtner said. “I focused on western Wisconsin and western Wisconsin values.”
Democratic pollster Brian Stryker, who worked on Schachtner’s race, noted that the campaign talked “pocketbook issues, like healthcare and tax reform, in context of the national debate,” without naming the president or Ryan. “We didn’t need to,” he explained, “because that’s already in the minds of voters.”
Sykes warned Republicans that “Trump is the subtext in all of these races, which makes it really, really hard for Republicans to fight against that mood music.”
After results trickled in last night, Wisconsin Republican officials swiftly reached out to dozens of operatives, as well as candidates and lawmakers, holding discussions throughout Wednesday to download the lessons of the state Senate race and develop a battle plan to activate grassroots networks.
“We’ve had to mobilize our grassroots army before — most notably, the recall effort in 2012. The Democratic enthusiasm was up across the board, and we had to rise up and overcome it. So we’re undergoing that same process to mobilize those people,” said Brian Reisinger, a senior advisor to Walker. “We’ve met the challenge before, and we will do it again.”
Steven Shepard contributed to this report.