Some might call it fickle. A more diplomatic term would be bipartisan.
No matter the label, a swath of west-central Wisconsin that history suggests is one of the last bastions of open-mindedness in an increasingly partisan world could play a key role in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
That region, generally south of Eau Claire and west of Interstate 94, has a history of swinging back and forth between supporting Democratic and Republican candidates. In the most recent and obvious example, Dunn, Pepin, Buffalo, Trempealeau and Jackson counties were among 22 Wisconsin counties and 217 counties nationwide that backed Democrat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election and then flipped their support to Republican Donald Trump in 2016.
Looking at the 12-county area surrounding Eau Claire, Obama won all but St. Croix County in 2008, and Trump carried all but Eau Claire County in 2016.
Local political analyst John Frank, a retired Chippewa Valley Technical College social studies instructor and former GOP congressional aide, has a simple explanation: “We’re the purplest part of a purple state.”
All of this suggests that maybe Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers had it right Thursday when he stressed the importance of the region during a campaign rally at UW-Eau Claire.
“If Chippewa Valley goes for me and (Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Mandela Barnes) and the other Democratic candidates, we will win,” Evers declared.
Evers, the state schools superintendent, is challenging eight-year incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Tuesday’s election. A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed the race is a dead heat.
A U.S. Senate seat, all U.S. House seats, several other statewide offices and a host of legislative seats also will be on Wisconsin ballots, with some political observers speculating that control of the state Senate could be up for grabs should a much-discussed “blue wave” come to pass. Republicans have had complete control of state government for the past eight years.
“Will there be a blue wave or a red wall? It’s hard to know,” said Geoff Peterson, chairman of the political science department at UW-Eau Claire. “Right now, I think it’s really all up in the air.”
In such a coin-flip election, voter turnout will likely play a crucial role in determining if Republicans or Democrats are happy with Tuesday’s results, which explains why both sides have been making such a big effort to encourage their voters to get to the polls, Peterson said.
He noted Republicans typically generate a higher turnout rate in midterm elections, but Democrats have more room to improve from their usual participation rate.
Historical precedent is working in Democrats’ favor this time around, Frank said, because the president’s party generally loses a number of congressional seats in midterms two years after the presidential election. Midterms give voters their first chance to weigh in on how well they believe the president and his party are keeping their campaign promises.
Nationally, Democrats need to gain 23 seats to win control of the House and two seats to gain a majority in the Senate — almost exactly the number of seats that typically flip in a president’s first midterms, Frank pointed out.
‘Back and forth’
Party leaders in west-central Wisconsin don’t know what to expect on Tuesday, but several of them shared their observations with the Leader-Telegram about what they are seeing and hearing among voters in those swing counties. The dramatic shift to the right from the 2012 to 2016 presidential election involved net swings of 26 percentage points in Jackson and Trempealeau counties, 25 points in Buffalo and Pepin counties, and 16 points in Dunn County.
Dunn County has a history of supporting Democrats and Republicans by slim margins.
“To say Dunn County is red or blue is very hard,” said Dale Wiehoff, the county Democratic Party chairman. “It goes back and forth, but we’re feeling like this time the wind is in our direction, though it’s going to be tough as usual.”
Wiehoff said signs of optimism for area Democrats include welcoming an influx of volunteers for party activities, having more women step up to run for office, witnessing the resistance energy on display in local women’s marches and seeing state Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, win a January special election in a western Wisconsin district traditionally dominated by Republicans.
He characterized it as a sense of determination that arose after the “brutal awakening” of Trump’s election.
“There are these indicators that people want something to change and they want to do something about it,” Wiehoff said. “People are stepping up in a way that’s new to me, and that’s pretty exciting.”
However, Bill Arndt, chairman of the Dunn County Republican Party, said he isn’t worried about his party being washed out of power by a blue wave.
While he acknowledged the party hasn’t seen as many enthusiastic volunteers as in 2016 when many folks were attracted to Trump’s promises to shake up Washington, Arndt still expressed confidence the strong economy will prompt many people to vote for Walker and other Republican incumbents in Wisconsin.
“I just think the state is running better now than it was eight years ago, and I’d think the voters would like to keep that going,” he said.
Yet both party leaders admitted they don’t know what message voters will send on Tuesday.
“I would like to say it will stay red, but who knows?” Arndt said.
Jackson County GOP chairman Bill Laurent credited much of the swing in his county to the ground game, saying local party members were extremely visible and active in the community.
Laurent also maintained that he believes the county is turning gradually redder, which gives him optimism that Republican candidates will do well in midterms widely viewed as a referendum on Trump’s first two years even though he acknowledged that “Trump is not going to be able to change Washington overnight.”
Trump tapped into widespread dissatisfaction with the federal government among Jackson County voters, Laurent said, adding, “It was a feeling the government was not listening to them.”
A local wild card, Laurent said, is that Jackson County has an advisory referendum on the ballot to solicit opinions on whether the U.S. Constitution should be amended to indicate that corporations don’t have the same free speech rights as individuals. The referendum, which pertains to regulating campaign contributions, could motivate voters on the left but its impact is difficult to predict, he said.
Pushing for balance
In Pepin County, the 2016 election represented the first time a Republican presidential candidate had carried the county since 1972, although the gaps had been narrowing, said Democratic Party chairman Bruce Johnson, who believes it was an aberration and not the beginning of a new normal.
“I don’t think the county is becoming increasingly red,” Johnson said. “Trump, I hope, was a one-time phenomenon fueled by people who feel they weren’t being listened to or being paid attention to.”
Johnson acknowledged that Democrats didn’t run a great campaign in 2016, in part due to overconfidence, but said they are focused on not repeating that mistake this time around. Volunteers have had a good response as they’ve been making telephone calls and going door-to-door across the county, encouraging people to vote for Democrats to return balance to state and federal government, he said.
“I think people are looking for that,” he said. “We need to make people defend their ideas rather than just bully things through.”
Like some of his Democratic colleagues in the region, Buffalo County Democratic Party chairman Craig Brooks sees positive signs that give him optimism about the midterms.
One visible sign of increased motivation among Democrats came in the form of candidates willing to test the political waters themselves.While the county party has had trouble in the past getting people to run for office, Brooks said, this year all legislative races with districts including part of the county were contested and Democrats had three-way primaries in the 92nd Assembly District and 31st Senate District. Brooks also suggested that state Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, losing his bid to be re-elected as mayor of his hometown in the spring could be a positive sign for Democrats.
“People here seem more willing to vote and more strongly believing they should vote than in 2016,” Brooks said. “In that election there were an awful lot of people who felt they didn’t want to vote for either of those presidential candidates or voted for third-party candidates, and that really affected voter turnout.”
Brooks said his hope is that the changes will translate to success at the ballot box for Democratic candidates.
Trempealeau County Republican Party chairman Dave Anderson said he will go into the midterms feeling “pretty positive” about his party’s prospects.
He bases that on strong demand for yard signs supporting GOP candidates, a steady stream of volunteers and the good response party volunteers have been getting when participating in parades, fairs and other community events.
“Life is busy, so when people take the time to volunteer for things, that means something,” Anderson said.
Though experts initially considered Trump an underdog, he did well in Trempealeau County because he seemed to relate to the people, Anderson said.
“Trump spoke their language,” Anderson said. “If you’re coming across as one of us, as someone who understands what our lives are about, that goes an awful long ways.”
Though Anderson recognizes the party in power usually loses seats in midterm elections, he suggested the low unemployment rate and strong job market might help Republicans buck the trend.
“There are a lot of good signs for that, but you just don’t know,” he said.
Trend or blip?
Frank, the political analyst, said he believes many west-central Wisconsin voters still consider which candidates they think would do the best job as opposed to just looking at party affiliation.
“I think there’s a lot of that in this part of the country,” he said.
Tuesday’s elections should provide some clarity about voters in the region’s swing counties.
“One of the things this election will tell us,” UW-Eau Claire’s Peterson said, “is whether what we saw in 2016 was the beginning of a trend or just a blip on the radar.”