The Wisconsin GOP’s Trump problem

The pandemic, ballot battles, and the president are dragging state Republicans down

President Donald Trump shrugging and making a face looking skeptical disbelieving
Donald Trump Credit: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0

With just over two weeks to go before the 2020 election, Wisconsin is at the center of our nation’s political upheaval.

Democrats are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to allow election officials more time to count an avalanche of absentee ballots. Meanwhile, a COVID-positive President Donald Trump is coming to Janesville on Saturday. To get tickets to Trump’s in-person rally — a last-ditch pitch to voters in our swing state — you had to sign a waiver releasing the campaign from liability if you get sick. Ugh.

Acknowledging that his stock is sinking fast, especially with suburban women, Trump made a desperate overture to white women voters in swing states who have been abandoning him in droves — weirdly pleading with suburban women in Pennsylvania to “please like me” and saying that he “saved you damn neighborhood” by rolling back an Obama-era fair housing rule, thus keeping low-income people of color from moving in next door. Again, ugh.

Trump’s sinking poll numbers in Wisconsin caused even Republican Senate President Roger Roth to admit during a Thursday WisPolitics forum that the veto-proof majority Republicans had hoped to win in November’s state legislative races might now be beyond reach.

There’s no doubt that the president is a drag on Wisconsin Republicans. But GOP control of the Legislature is still secure — thanks to one of the most gerrymandered political maps in the nation.

Fair, nonpartisan maps would dramatically reduce Republican power, especially if Wisconsin turns blue again in November, as current polls predict it will.

That, of course, is why the Republicans want a veto-proof majority — not just to override Gov. Evers, but to give themselves control over the next round of redistricting maps after the 2020 Census, so they can lock in their control of the Legislature.

In the WisPolitics forum, Roth and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley discussed the statewide races to watch in November, with an eye on whether Republicans can increase their power.

Races to watch

Democrats are defending three senate seats  — two open seats in La Crosse and Green Bay, where Democratic senators have stepped down, and the 10th senate district seat in Western Wisconsin held by Sen. Patty Schachtner.

Sen. Janet Bewley in March 2019 celebrating the Girl Scouts (Via her legislative Facebook page
Sen. Janet Bewley in March 2019 celebrating the Girl Scouts (Via her legislative Facebook page)

“Clearly we have gerrymandered maps and everybody — it’s much agreed that there are more seats designed to be Republican than there are seats that are designed to be Democrat,” Bewley said when asked about the Democrats’ chances.  “We have been trying to overcome that. And I think we’re doing an excellent job. But I think that if you take, for example, Patty Schachtner’s seat in the 10th, that is a Republican district.”

Republicans were “shocked,” Bewley said, when a Democrat won the seat after Republican Sen. Sheila Harsdorf left to run then-Gov. Scott Walker’s Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

Still, Bewley sounded less than certain about Schachtner’s chances of holding onto the seat.

“It is still a constructed Republican district,” she said, “So it’s harder — it’s harder for her now, with all of the issues that are going around the country and around the state, to be able to overcome the fact that it was made to be a Republican district. But I don’t count her out, not at all.”

Bewley sounded more optimistic about Gov. Evers’ former acting DATCP secretary Brad Pfaff’s chances in his race to replace former Senate Minority Leader Jen Shilling of La Crosse, who stepped down to take a job in the private sector.  She also projected confidence that Jonathan Hansen, Dave Hanson’s nephew, will win his uncle’s open senate seat in Green Bay.

Lowering expectations

On Wednesday April 15, 2020 the Wisconsin State Senate in Madison, held a virtual session to take up legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the state will receive more than $2 billion in federal aid. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL
Senate President Roger Roth, (R – Appleton), during a break in a April 2020 legislative session on federal COVID-19 aid. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

Roth, for his part, touted Donald Trump’s 2016 margins of victory in two of the three contested districts. The problem, though, is that Trump is down in the polls, which Roth tacitly conceded has caused Republicans to lower their expectations.

“When we look at these races, sometimes for all of the work and the effort of our candidates and our belief in the superiority of our ideas and work ethic and so forth, a lot of it trends with how someone at the top of the ticket is doing. And the presidential race, unquestionably, will have its effect here in the state of Wisconsin.”

Translation: Trump is killing us!

Trump won by 17 percentage points in Schachtner’s district in 2016, Roth pointed out. And he likes the chances of Republican Rep. Rob Stafsholt, a lifelong resident of St. Croix County, in the heart of the district, its current Assembly representative and a fourth-generation farmer. “We feel real good about how he fits to that district, how he fits to the sporting culture of that district and the hunting culture of that district and to the small business owners,” Roth said. 

Up in Green Bay, Roth concedes that Dave Hansen and his nephew are well known and popular — and that Republicans have consistently failed to win the Democratic-leaning area. Still, he notes, Trump won in Green Bay’s 30th Senate district by 10 percentage points. Eric Wimberger, a marine veteran who ran and lost to the elder Hansen, is running again and the district is more Republican than it used to be thanks to the map the Legislature drew in 2011.

Finally, with Jen Shilling’s resignation in the 32nd senate district, Republican Dan Kapanke is taking another shot  in what would have been a rematch against Shilling, who beat him last time by a narrow 61-vote margin. 

“I think when she resigned, it really turned that race on its head and gave him an opportunity there,” Roth says.

“There is a vast difference between Brad Pfaff and Jennifer Schilling, not only on their name ID but on their style of politics,” Roth added. “And I can tell you, our candidate Dan Kapanke is probably the hardest working person of any candidate we have right now running for the Senate Republicans.”

But the 32nd is a district Trump lost in 2016 by 4.6%. And things don’t look better for Trump in 2020. 

Kapanke can win it, Roth says,  “if President Trump comes close to that this time. He doesn’t have to win it. He just has to come close to 4.6%.”

Trump ‘weighing heavily’ on GOP

All in all, Roth says,  “I do think that the presidential campaign is weighing heavily on our races here. That being said, if President Trump wins the state of Wisconsin, I do believe we’ll have a veto proof majority.”

Bewley put it more starkly: “They won’t get the veto proof majority. I know that. I mean, what is he going to say? ‘No, I don’t think we’re going to get it?’ …  But know that that’s not going to happen. And the effect of Trump’s presidency, I do believe, that is an effect … I see it as deadweight. I see it as dragging down their candidates.”

Bewley and Roth disagree about the vulnerability of veteran Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), who represents a  suburban district where Trump’s support appears to be tanking. Bewley calls it “a poster for the Republican suburban woman who is just turned off,” while Roth calls Darling an “iron lady” who is facing “the wrong candidate for the district” in Neal Plotkin, a small business owner and substitute high-school teacher from Glendale.

But in general terms, it’s clear that Republicans are losing their grip on the suburbs.

April’s pandemic election ended in a surprise win for liberal Supreme Court Justice Jill Karofsky, and a noticeable erosion of support for conservatives in the white-flight WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) that ring Milwaukee. 

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Washington bureau chief Craig Gilbert noted in April, conservative court margins shrank between 2019 and 2020 by about 15 points in each of those counties — a bad sign for Republicans. 

Trump is still leading Biden in the WOW counties — but by a significantly smaller margin than either Mitt Romney or George W. Bush, both of whom lost Wisconsin.

The GOP’s biggest liabilities

Not only are state Republicans’ political fortunes tied to Trump, they share Trump’s two biggest political liabilities. Number One is the pandemic, and the way denial and inaction have become the GOP brand. The party continues to pursue lawsuit after lawsuit to block Gov. Evers’ public health orders, while refusing to come into session to present its own plan for dealing with the virus.

The second Republican liability is the party’s open opposition to maintaining a functioning democracy: letting people vote, counting all the ballots, and making sure poll workers have the time and resources they need to run elections smoothly.

Wisconsin, along with Pennsylvania, is one of only two states that don’t allow clerks to start counting absentee ballots before Election Day. And so far, Republicans (despite their earlier endorsements of the idea) have ignored a letter by State Sen. Chris Larson and 22 other Democrats to come into special session to allow absentee ballot-counting to start now, to cope with the avalanche of pandemic-related early voting. 

In April, the Republican Party went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to block common-sense accommodations of voters who were afraid to go to the polls in the pandemic. 

Now, they are opposing an effort to extend the deadline for mailing in absentee ballots and to allow poll workers from outside voting districts to help support overworked local election officials. 

Sooner or later, state Republicans’ obsession with their own power, their failure to lead in a public-health emergency, and their hostility and obstruction of the will of the people are bound to catch up with them. Just as they are catching up to Donald Trump.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.