The “fall” primary election hangover blog

Back in my public TV pundit days, the late Wisconsin Public Television “WeekEnd” show had a post-election “hangover” show in which WPT would invite all of its pundits to an on-air party in Madison.

The last such show was the most strange, because the Friday after the 2000 presidential election was a show that, unlike every previous such show, included one very prominent race that was not yet decided, with no prospect of a decided result.

That is certainly not the case with this “fall” primary election, which if anything featured surprisingly wide margins in some races, including the U.S. Senate Republican primary, with U.S. Sen. Leah Vukmir (R–Brookfield) having no problem defeating Kevin Nicholson despite Nicholson (and his out-of-state money) vastly outspending Vukmir.

Nicholson is evidence of how out-of-state money doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, especially if the candidate has a clueless campaign. Anyone who has paid any attention to politics should have known the fights Vukmir was involved in the Legislature during her career, including Act 10, school choice and various tax cuts. Obviously GOP voters found most of what Nicholson claimed to lack credibility. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the demise of the GOP establishment in Wisconsin was exaggerated.

That doesn’t necessarily end Nicholson’s career, of course. In fact, the next 12 weeks will prove how much Nicholson is interested in Wisconsin politics, or not. If he doesn’t campaign hard for Vukmir and other Republicans, we’ll know the answer. If he’s really interested in haviing a future in state politics, he should also be looking for an office — state Legislature, or maybe the Fifth Congressional District if U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R–Menomonee Falls) retires — to run for in 2020.

Dan O’Donnell has more on the Vukmir race and other Tuesday stuff:

“Crucial Waukesha County” has been a running joke among pundits on election nights, but last night it proved just how crucial it is. As of this writing, Vukmir’s 22,005-vote margin of victory in Waukesha County made up approximately 73 percent of her statewide margin of victory. That, combined with her 9,679-vote victory margin in Ozaukee and Washington Counties, means that nearly all of her statewide margin of victory came from just three counties.

All told, she won just 16 counties (nearly all of them in southeast Wisconsin) while Nicholson won 56. Yet Vukmir’s margin of victory in the counties she won was simply too much for Nicholson to overcome outstate.

In presenting himself during the campaign as an outsider running against the weak, timid, do-nothing Republican Establishment, Nicholson made what would have been in any other state a wise gambit in the Age of Trump.

In southeast Wisconsin, however, it proved to be disastrous.

From the moment Governor Walker first proposed Act 10 in his first major act after his inauguration in 2011, Wisconsin Republicans—especially those who represent the very conservative WOW counties—found themselves in an all-out war with the most thuggish elements of liberalism. But they didn’t waver; they held together and won. And then they kept on winning, passing voter ID and right-to-work laws, repealing prevailing wage for local construction projects, and cutting tax and regulatory hurdles that reopened the state for business.

Along the way, they became the model for conservative governance for the rest of the country and a shining example of what Republicans could accomplish if they would only hold together and hold to their promises. Nicholson’s campaign, though, divisively suggested—first obliquely and then openly after he lost the GOP nomination and internal polling likely showed him struggling in the race’s final months—that the Wisconsin Republican Party was just like the dreaded “Republican Establishment” everywhere else; that it was somehow standing in the way of conservative reform instead of enacting it.

In attempting to cast Vukmir as a “typical politician” and an “Establishment type,” Nicholson also cast the rest of the Wisconsin GOP and those who have supported it as the Establishment. The gross miscalculation of voters in the counties he needed most is enough to make even the most casual observer of politics say “WOW.”

Not surprisingly, those voters resented it, and they punished Nicholson for it.

That, however, was [Tuesday]. Today, the divisiveness of the primary must give way to a united conservative movement or every one of Wisconsin’s conservative reforms is in jeopardy.

In a far less bitter primary, State Superintendent Tony Evers won the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nomination. As of this writing, more than 525,000 people voted in that primary, compared with about 430,000 who voted in the Republican Senate race and 442,000 who voted in Governor Walker’s largely uncontested primary. Neither of those are perfect comparisons, of course, but they are still gaps of roughly 95,000 and 83,000 more Democrat votes across the state.

In Wisconsin’s First Congressional District, which leans Republican, roughly 1,200 more votes were cast in the contested Democratic primary (which was won by Randy Bryce) than in the Republican primary (won by Bryan Steil).

This would seem to confirm that the enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democrat voters in Wisconsin is both very real and very concerning. To put it in perspective, in the Republican wave election of 2010, Ron Johnson beat incumbent Democratic Senator Russ Feingold by 105,091 votes out of 2.14 million cast for the two men combined—a margin of victory of 4.9 percent. Walker defeated Tom Barrett by 124,638 votes out of 2.13 million cast for the two of them—a margin of 5.8 percent.

[Tuesday] night, the “margin of victory” for statewide Democrat votes cast in the gubernatorial primary over Republican votes cast in the Senate primary was 9.9 percent (and nearly 100,000 total votes out of fewer than half of the total cast in the general election eight years ago).

This, again, is far from a perfect comparison, but it does illustrate the challenges that both Vukmir and Walker will face this November. This is also why it is absolutely imperative that the divisiveness of yesterday’s primary be forgotten (or at least forgiven) today.

If it isn’t, if conservative voters decide that they don’t want any part of Wisconsin’s “establishment” Republican Party, then Democrats will win—not just the Senate race, but the Governor’s race, too—and every conservative reform of the past seven years will be in jeopardy.

Once again, southeast Wisconsin (especially the WOW counties) will take the lead, but every other county must join them and be every bit as active and engaged if conservatives are to win again this year.

One might say it’s crucial.

One explanation for the lower GOP turnout might be the lack of must-vote races. I suspect most Republican voters would vote for the Vukmir–Nicholson winner regardless of Tuesday’s outcome because neither Vukmir nor Nicholson are Baldwin. That, however, requires getting out to vote Nov. 6.
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