Final 2018 Elections Preview

U.S. Senate:  Baldwin v. Vukmir

 While a number of states across the country are seeing record spending in U.S. Senate races that are coming down to the wire, activity and polling tells us that the race between U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and state Sen. Leah Vukmir will be one of the first ones called on election night, with the incumbent projected to keep her seat.

The race did seem to tighten briefly after the August primary when a Marquette poll showed Baldwin with a narrow two point lead over Vukmir. But other than that poll, Baldwin’s lead in the dozen or so publicly available polls has ranged from eight to 17 points, including in this week’s Marquette poll, which showed an 11-point Baldwin lead.

The Cook report calls the race a “likely hold,” which puts it in a safer category than 13 other U.S. Senate races which are either “leans” or “toss-ups.” The FiveThirtyEight blog gives Baldwin a 98.2 percent chance of winning.

Vukmir has run an aggressive race after her convincing primary victory, but she’s never found her footing against Baldwin, who also ran a smart aggressive campaign. Were this race held in 2016 we might be seeing different results, but 2018 has put Baldwin in a solid position to retain her seat.

From a national perspective, Republicans are favored to retain and possibly even expand their slim Senate majority. The 2018 playing field significantly favors Senate Republicans as 10 Senate Democrats are up for re-election in states that President Trump won, and only one Senate Republican incumbent is up for re-election in a state that Hillary Clinton won. With the Senate currently at 51-49 Republican (two independents caucus with the Democrats), the Democrats would have to defend all 10 Trump state Senators (they won’t) and knock off two Republican incumbents (they might).  Available polling shows this scenario as possible, but unlikely.


Wisconsin Governor:  Walker v. Evers

 If you’re watching this race from Wisconsin, you’ve seen the consistent heavy barrage of advertising from each side, both through traditional and digital media. Walker and his allies have significantly outspent Evers, but Evers remains strong in the polling and is spending enough through his campaign and third parties to keep him competitive. The latest Marquette poll released two days ago showed a statistical tie between the two candidates. This result mirrors much of the internal polling that makes its way into the public purview.

Four things I like if I’m team Walker: 

  • The negative ads against Evers stopped his progression. Evers was doing better right after the primary, but the messaging against him has slowed his momentum, hopefully blunting it before election day.
  • The right track/wrong track numbers for Wisconsin are nothing short of spectacular, especially when balanced against the national ones. The last remaining undecided voters have to feel pretty good about where things are in the state.
  • Trump’s numbers across the state have him with better approval numbers than Obama at this point in his tenure, and while the national environment looks to be trending Democratic, the poll numbers here aren’t showing that. Wisconsin has been an outlier before.
  • Perceived strength in Brown County and signs of lower election intensity on behalf of Evers in the City of Milwaukee fit into a statistical model that should result in another statewide win. Team Walker is 3 for 3 in statewide elections so far and knows how to maximize turnout in the areas that matter.

Four things I like if I’m team Evers: 

  • Historically, undecided voters on election day should break in favor of the challenger, so going in tied against the two term governor who has thrown the kitchen sink at me has me liking my chances.
  • A lot of other polling has Evers with a lead, including the Emerson poll that came out today with Evers up five points and over 50 percent. There are a number of polls that have showed the same thing over the last month. Worst case scenario, I’m going in tied, best case with a healthy lead.
  • Wisconsin may be an outlier at times, but if it’s not, the national environment is surely tilting left, which is in line with historical midterm elections that tend to favor the party who lost the presidency in the previous year.
  • The issues voters care most about in this cycle are education and health care. If they cast their votes accordingly, it would seem that the state Superintendent of Public Instruction might be someone they trust on education. And Republicans in general have had to spend a ton of time defending their position on coverage for pre-existing conditions, which means that they were vulnerable on the issue in the first place.


Wisconsin State Senate

Senate Republicans started out 2017 with 20 seats, having just knocked off heavy favorite Julie Lassa and nearly taking out Minority Leader Jen Shilling (D-La Crosse), whose race wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen. But Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s (R-Juneau) caucus, who has not lost an incumbent in a November election since 2006, suffered a couple of setbacks in 2018 when Sen. Patty Schachtner (D-Somerset) and Caleb Frostman (D-Sturgeon Bay) both won special elections in traditionally Republican seats, shrinking the Republican margin to 18-15.

Senate Democrats need to flip two seats and hold on to everything else in order to take the majority, and while it is possible, it does not seem likely at this point. Senate Democrats seemingly missed out on potential opportunities in two districts that would have expanded the playing field. Republicans Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) and Rep. Kathy Bernier (R-Lake Hallie) are running in these districts that have swung back and forth through the years and might have been in play in what has the potential to be a good year for Democrats. With these two not in play, Democrats’ opportunity to flip two seats is confined to three districts: Senate District 17, held by Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green); Senate District 19, held by Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton); and Senate District 5, a seat that became open when Leah Vukmir ran for U.S. Senate.

Of the three, the Marklein seat (SD 17) is most likely to flip due to its make-up. Recent history shows the southwestern Wisconsin district is one that will likely support Baldwin and Evers at the top of the ticket, but one that has supported Republicans for the state legislature further down the ticket. Marklein has run and won in tough situations before, and he has a significant funding advantage over his opponent Kriss Marion. But Marion is the strongest opponent Marklein has seen to date and is receiving plenty of financial help from third-party players. The polling gossip in this one died down a couple weeks ago as it was evident both sides were seeing vastly different outcomes. Republicans had Marklein way up and in safe territory, while Democrats had it as a toss-up. Given the amount of money and attention we are seeing there right now, it feels more like a toss up going into election day.

Finding the second seat gets a little tough for Senate Democrats. Lee Snodgrass, who does communications for the Girl Scouts of America of the Northwestern Great Lakes is challenging Senate President Roger Roth in the Appleton area seat. Some viewed this as a potential target because of the earlier 2018 race results in the Brown County area that saw liberal Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Dallet winning the district and Democrat Sen. Caleb Frostman winning the nearby Door County district. While those earlier 2018 electoral results may have showed Democratic intensity in the Fox Valley, it likely won’t be enough to get Snodgrass over the finish line in what is a lean Republican district. Polling is also showing that Republicans are seemingly re-engaged in the Brown County region as we head toward the midterms.

Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) is taking on Wauwatosa resident Julie Henszey in the open 5th district seat that includes Tosa, Brookfield and Elm Grove. This seat comes into play only because of the struggle Trump is having with suburban (college educated, according to the polling) women. In this area, they have long voted Republican, but in 2016 many did not vote for Trump.  Democrats believe that puts this race in play, while Republicans view the historical performance as almost impenetrably Republican.

If Senate Democrats were able to knock off two of the three above, they still have to hold the 1st Senate District seat won by Caleb Frostman in a June special that features a November rematch between Frostman and Rep. Andre Jacque (R-DePere). Frostman narrowly defeated Jacque in the Door County area seat special election but now faces him in a situation where turnout historically favors Republicans.  Republicans have held that district for 40 years prior to the special election loss. Many view Frostman as the stronger candidate and Democrats hope that this, and a better year for Democrats overall, pull him over the finish line.

Democrats must also protect Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland), who holds the 25th Senate District seat, which spans across the northernmost part of Wisconsin. Bewley faces Republican James Bolen, the Executive Director of the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce.  Bolen has seen a cash infusion of hundreds of thousands of dollars come in on his behalf from third party groups. Republicans have been touting this seat for months, stating the tides have changed in this area (comparing it to a neighboring Minnesota congressional district that is likely to flip blue to red), and they seem to be putting their money where their mouth is, putting a seat in play that could result in a what would be considered an unexpected result.


Wisconsin State Assembly

 Of the 99 seats in play only about a dozen are truly competitive this cycle, and while we might see a surprise or two on election day in the state’s lower chamber, Assembly Republicans will still come out with a healthy majority.

The Assembly Republicans currently hold a 64-35 majority, a majority that has increased every year under Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). While independent groups have played in the governor’s race and state senate races on behalf of Democrats to help narrow the funding gap, it does not appear the same thing has happened in the Assembly to any great affect.

Additionally, while people debate the existence or size of a blue wave, the likelihood that it washes over the state as a whole and continues all the way down ballot is miniscule. There are areas of concern for Assembly Republicans and opportunity for Assembly Democrats, including some suburban Milwaukee seats as well as some open seats in southwestern Wisconsin and elsewhere. And while Vos has a highly professionalized operation, it does appear they should lose some ground this session. If you’re Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), a great night is eight pickups, a good night is five to six, but three or less and you’ve likely underperformed. Conversely, if you offered Vos the option to come back at 60 seats, he’d likely take it. Although no one will be surprised if he outperforms expectations.


Wisconsin Congressional Seats

 Of Wisconsin’s eight congressional seats, it appears that two are in play. U.S. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R), Ron Kind (D), Gwen Moore (D), Mark Pocan (D), Sean Duffy (R), and Mike Gallagher (R) are all expected to win easily. The open seat to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) has been competitive from the start, and lately some attention is being paid to the 6th Congressional District, where incumbent Glenn Grothman (R) is running against Dan Kohl.

Democrat Randy Bryce started out by running against Speaker Ryan in the 1st Congressional District. Bryce, also known as “Ironstache,” became a bit of a celebrity in Democrat circles because he was running against the Republican Speaker. He picked up nationwide support and raised millions of dollars. When Ryan decided to retire, the profile of the race de-escalated quickly. Bryan Steil is the Republican in the now open seat, and he has Ryan’s full backing. The district trends Republican, and most prognosticators think it will stay that way. The Cook Report rates the seat as “Lean Republican” as does Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball.”

Republican Glenn Grothman is expected to retain his heavily Republican district, but he is facing a challenge from Dan Kohl (former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl’s nephew). Both candidates have been active, with Kohl outraising Grothman since he entered the race. This is a seat that could be close in a wave year and has registered on the national radar as of late. That said, both the Cook Report and the Crystal Ball mark it as a “Likely Republican” seat.