Although a recount is expected, Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly won a vacant U.S. House seat in suburban Pittsburgh this week, defeating Republican Rick Saccone in a district that President Donald Trump carried by 20 points two years ago.
On Feb. 27, two state legislative seats, in New Hampshire and Connecticut, flipped from Republican to Democratic control, making 39 Democratic seat pickups nationwide since Trump won his election in November 2016 — including Democrat Patty Schachtner of Somerset winning a special election in west-central Wisconsin’s 10th Senate District over GOP state Rep. Adam Jarchow of Balsam Lake. Republican Sheila Harsdorf had held that seat for 17 years. Trump won the district by 17 points.
So, are area Republicans in trouble this fall? After Schachtner won, Gov. Scott Walker said it was “a wake-up call for Republicans.” Harsdorf had won the seat in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote; Schachtner carried it with 55 percent support.
WisPolitics editor JR Ross said if a Senate seat that a Republican, Harsdorf, won with a 17-point margin could swing Democratic, then other districts where Republicans have won by 5 points or fewer also should be competitive. He also believes Democrats are more likely to vote this fall.
“That puts a lot of districts in play that normally wouldn’t be,” Ross said. “Some seats that are traditionally Republican, they might get a real run this year.”
Ross added: “You have to ask what is the message for Republicans, when Democrats are so excited to go and vote against Donald Trump? We’ve seen suburban women abandon the Republican Party in (special elections in) Alabama and Virginia. The question is if Democrats can maintain that enthusiasm now through November.”
UW-Eau Claire political science professor Rodd Freitag agrees this fall will be a challenge for Republicans.
“The winds are blowing against Republican candidates,” Freitag said. “It’s not going to be a friendly election for Republicans. But a lot of that will depend on the quality of candidates running against them.”
Rich Postlewaite, a UW-Stout political science professor who has announced he will run as a Democrat for the 91st Assembly District seat (currently held by Democrat Dana Wachs of Eau Claire who is running for governor and will not seek re-election to the Assembly), was cautious about reading too much into Lamb’s win.
“Lamb has some conservative views, on pro-life and guns. He’s 33 years old and a fresh face on the scene,” Postlewaite said. “He fought the old-school Democrats and focused on the blue-collar workers who (voted) for Trump.”
Brian Westrate of Fall Creek, the 3rd Congressional District Republican Party chairman, said he won’t worry too much about one special election result, particularly one in Pennsylvania.
“(Lamb) ran as a conservative — we would welcome him into our fold, as our party,” Westrate said. “Democrats have learned they need to run away from liberalism. Being an (Barack) Obama or (House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi Democrat will get your butt handed to you.”
Ross described Lamb and Schachtner as “good fits” for each of their districts, and that was a key for them each winning a race in a traditional Republican stronghold.
Freitag agreed, saying both were strong candidates.
“That’s not going to be the case in all those legislative districts,” Freitag said.
As of Friday, no Democratic challengers had filed with the Wisconsin Elections Commission against area Republican Reps. Rob Summerfield of Bloomer, Kathy Bernier of Lake Hallie and Warren Petryk of the town of Pleasant Valley or GOP Sen. Terry Moulton of the town of Seymour. No Democrat has held Summerfield’s 67th Assembly seat in more than 20 years, when Democrat Michael O. Wilder lost in the November 1996 election to Republican Tom Sykora.
Republican U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of Wausau has three opponents so far — Democrats Brian Ewert of Marshfield and David Beeksma of Ashland, and Ken Driessen of the Direct Participatory Democracy Party.
Ross said the big question is if any incumbents will opt to retire, and he expects that Democratic challengers will make those races competitive.
“The ones we’re focused on are the Bernier seat and the Moulton seat,” Ross said.
Freitag said once Democratic challengers emerge, it will become more evident if those districts can be flipped.
“Those who seem to have potential will certainly have resources — there will be outside spending,” Freitag said.
Freitag added that there is more likely to be a Democratic challenger in every legislative race this year.
As of right now, Ross hasn’t heard much buzz about Duffy’s seat being in jeopardy.
“(Duffy) has a decent profile and at least $1 million in the bank,” Ross said. “I don’t know yet if that seat is in play. It definitely got more Republican after the last redistricting.”
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan online newsletter, ranks the district as a “solid Republican” hold for Duffy.
Postlewaite said the 10th Senate District pickup for Democrats doesn’t necessarily mean Duffy is vulnerable.
“With Duffy’s race, it’s hard to say because it’s such a huge district,” Postlewaite said. (Duffy’s 7th District covers all of northwestern and north-central Wisconsin as well as parts of west-central and central Wisconsin.)
Westrate said the 10th District special election result will not translate to trouble for other area Republicans.
“I have hypothesized that Democrats do well in low-turnout elections because they just believe in government more,” Westrate said. “I have people on my side of the aisle who are panicking, and I have people on my side of the aisle who think it will be fine. Panic is never a good thing — panic is what kills you. Of course, there is cause for concern, but I’d say that even if we had won every one of those special elections.”
The 10th District Democratic victory was a bit surprising, Postlewaite said. He has heard anecdotal evidence that Jarchow had too many negative ads.
“(Voters) got really tired of the negative fliers in the mail,” he said. “My friends there said it backfired. Wisconsin has always been receptive to not going negative.”
Postlewaite added: “With a lower voter turnout (in a special election), energizing your base is always the key.”
Ultimately, the outcome in November will come down to the mood of voters, he said.
“It’s (about) energizing the base — they took out their anger in 2016,” Postlewaite said. “Are they still angry now?”
Health care remains a hot topic, an issue that will be challenging for Republicans on the ballot this year, Postlewaite said.
“Republicans won’t be able to push repeal-and-replace of the Affordable Care Act,” he said.
Westrate said Republicans must stay focused and get their message out.
“We can take nothing for granted,” he said. “We have to work just as hard this (election) cycle as we did the cycle before.”