‘Egg on his face’ or ‘decisive victory’

What does Tuesday's special election result tell us about November?

Signs from a pandemic election including health alert at the polls
arning signs from a pandemic election polling location

Before the dust had settled in the special election for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, the state’s Democrats were claiming a moral victory in Republican Tom Tiffany’s 14 point win over Democrat Tricia Zunker. 

Tiffany’s double digit margin was lower than President Donald Trump’s margin in the 7th district in 2016 and former Rep. Sean Duffy’s win in 2018 — but the gerrymandered district is still solidly red and the tea leaves are difficult to read as the 2020 presidential campaign starts to heat up. 

Turnout was lower than it was in the district’s last two congressional races, but special elections often have lower turnout and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help. 

In a statement, Tiffany — who was repeatedly endorsed by Trump on Twitter — said the results were “decisive” and the voters were “resoundingly clear,” about who they want representing them in Congress.

official photo of state Sen. Tom Tiffany
Sen. Tom Tiffany

“A huge thank you to all the supporters who worked so incredibly hard to make tonight’s decisive victory possible,” Tiffany said. “Throughout this campaign, one thing was made resoundingly clear: the people of our district want a strong, experienced voice who will take some Northwoods commonsense to Washington D.C.”

But Democrats pounced on the shrinking margin as evidence Trump will struggle in the fall in Wisconsin — a crucial swing state. 

“Trump went all in for Tom Tiffany and got egg on his face,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler said in a statement. “For Trump to win reelection, red areas have to get redder to balance out blue areas getting bluer—but tonight, thanks to the terrific campaign run by Tricia Zunker and the organizing work of thousands of volunteers, Wisconsin’s reddest congressional district swung drastically towards Democrats.”

Zunker did outperform every Democrat running in the district since 2012 — breaking the 40% threshold for the first time since Pat Kreitlow lost in Duffy’s first reelection campaign that year. The 2012 election was also the first race in the district after its boundaries were redrawn to favor Republicans. 

headshot of Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler
Ben Wikler (photo courtesy of Democratic Party of Wisconsin)

While the state’s Democrats were putting a positive spin on the night, outside observers came to the same conclusion. Jennifer Horn is the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a group of prominent conservatives aiming to beat Trump in November. The result in the 7th district, according to Horn, is a bad sign for Trump. 

“Donald Trump can’t afford to lose even 1% of the vote, much less 8%,” Horn says. “His failures of leadership are catching up with him in the most tragic way possible. Over 82,000 Americans have lost their lives in this pandemic — including, unfortunately, over 400 Wisconsinites — due in great part to the president’s gross incompetence. The president has put his own political interests ahead of the safety and well-being of the American people and he will pay the price in November.”

On the ground in the district, Democrats are preparing for a do-over in November when Tiffany will be up for reelection and Zunker plans to again be on the ballot. Kim Butler, chair of the 7th District Democratic Party says she thinks a more energized electorate also voting in the presidential election could help Zunker win. 

“She did five to six points better than any recent Democrat, in a gerrymandered district,” Butler says. “I don’t doubt that she will get right back up and fight the November race even harder. She ran a strong campaign, during a pandemic. I haven’t seen this kind of widespread excitement for a Democratic 7th CD candidate in years. She had a fundraising surge at the end, and I think she has all the skills and pieces in place to win this seat in an election with higher turnout like there will be in November.”

Just as Butler said, the campaign and election took place during a pandemic. Being the second time Wisconsin voters have gone to the polls since restrictions were put in place to slow the spread of disease, area clerks reported that the process went smoothly. It helped that, unlike in Wisconsin’s April 7 election, there were no flip-flopping court decisions or last minute changes before the Tuesday election.

Leslie Kremer, Wausau City Clerk, says there weren’t too many people arriving all at once at the city’s six polling locations. She added that the process has gotten smoother as the city prepares for the rush of a presidential election. 

“It also was easier for voters,” Kremer says. “Some of the procedures we’ve put in place to keep people healthy and safe are good to continue even if COVID restrictions went away.” 

Kathy Morse, City Clerk of Rice Lake, predicted Tuesday’s turnout (1,817) at her one polling place to within 100 votes. The city used the same setup as the April election, which she says helped voters and poll workers keep everything sanitized and maintain social distancing. 

“It’s nice that the rules didn’t get changed at the last minute for this election,” Morse says. 

The lack of last minute changes also helped with the processing of absentee ballots, Kremer says. In April, the witness signature requirement on absentee ballots was waived and then reinstituted by court decisions, which caused a lot of confusion and invalidated some ballots. 

In May, the witness signature requirement remained in place but 7th District voters still took advantage of the opportunity to avoid voting in person during the pandemic. Nearly half, 47%, of voters in the May 12 election voted absentee, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission. 

While this is a lower proportion of the total vote than the April 7 election when 73% of votes were absentee, it’s still a large piece of the voting block and shows the practice will remain hugely popular through the rest of the year, Kremer says. 

Both Tiffany and Zunker have begun collecting signatures to be on the ballot for the fall election, which is set for Nov. 3.