POLITICAL STOCK REPORT
–A collection of insider opinion–
(Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2018)
Tammy Baldwin: The Madison Dem’s convincing re-election bid proves ticket splitting is alive and well in Wisconsin and shows Dems they can still win in places such as the Fox Valley. It also helps if you’re the kind of candidate who raises $30 million over six years and successfully uses those resources to define your opponent, insiders say. Following Donald Trump’s 2016 win in Wisconsin, the first-term senator immediately went on the list of vulnerable Dem U.S. Senate incumbents up in 2018. But a combination of factors prevent her race from every truly taking off. One, a flood of early money came in trying to beat up Baldwin well ahead of 2018. But much of it was from groups backed by Illinois businessman Dick Uihlein, who was an early supporter of business consultant and ex-Marine Kevin Nicholson. Once GOP state Sen. Leah Vukmir dispatched Nicholson in the primary — aided by the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s endorsement — that independent funding largely dried up. Instead, national GOP groups played in places such as Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and Florida — where they were successful — and West Virginia, Montana, Nevada and Arizona — where they weren’t. Without much help from independent groups, Vukmir was vulnerable to Baldwin’s steady stream of ads that cast her as a tool of the insurance industry who would undercut protections for those with pre-existing conditions — no matter how much Vukmir protested to the contrary. Add those factors all together, insiders say, and the result is a nearly 10-point win in a state often viewed as evenly divided politically.
Tony Evers: Going into 2018, critics were quick to dismiss the three-term state schools superintendent as lacking in excitement, name ID and fundraising prowess. But he also became the Dem to finally knock off Gov. Scott Walker. And come Jan. 7, those critics will call him “Governor Evers.” In a wide open field for the Dem nomination, Evers was seen early on as the frontrunner by default. After winning statewide three times to lead the Department of Public Instruction, his last in 2017, Evers was simply better known than his Dem counterparts. But as others turned in more robust finance reports — often boosted by their own money — some wondered if another candidate, possibly one with a more progressive profile, could catch fire and beat him. Instead, Evers takes 42 percent of the vote in a crowded primary. Then Republicans pounce on Evers over the case of a Middleton teacher who viewed porn at school, but kept his license. Some of Walker’s backer said it was their best punch and it was going to put the freshly minted Dem nominee on his heels. Instead, many analysts said, it seemed to be a waste of money. Walker did seem to start making headway with a tax message that seized on Evers initially saying “everything is on the table” when asked about possibly raising gas taxes by as much as $1. As much as Evers’ campaign tried to counter the attacks, Walker continued to charge his Dem opponent would jack up the gas tax, let property taxes go wild, and raise taxes on farmers and manufacturers. While it ended up being a tight race, ultimately, Evers rode a message of change to the East Wing, constantly hitting Walker as a politician who had put his own interests ahead of what’s best for Wisconsin. To be sure, some Republicans still see Evers as a candidate who got lucky in riding an anti-Trump environment and stumbled his way through key moments of the race such as talking openly about the possibility of raising taxes and then insisting in the closing days that he wouldn’t. Defenders say Evers was the right candidate at the right time and survived the campaign without getting cornered on too many issues, giving him flexibility to deal as governor. What’s more, some say, in a year when voters weren’t looking for politicians, Evers persona as an earnest educator garnered him support among independents. Now, Evers faces a new challenge with divided government — and the aftermath of a GOP-engineered extraordinary session that saw Republicans push through measures to rein in executive branch powers. One of his first tests will be the fight over the budget he will deliver in early 2019.
Rebecca Dallet: The Milwaukee County judge becomes the first left-of-center candidate to win an open Supreme Court seat in more than two decades — and in convincing fashion. As Dallet headed toward a three-way primary, some thought she could get squeezed on the left by Madison attorney Tim Burns and on the right by Sauk County Judge Michael Screnock. But some saw Dallet moving more left ahead of the primary as she started talking about “values.” Burns, who ran as an unabashed progressive, ends up with less than 18 percent of the primary vote, which sets up a general election race between Dallet and Screnock to replace conservative Justice Michael Gableman. But Screnock underwhelms, and conservatives used to having their candidates running a law-and-order general election campaign bolstered by superior resources see the script flipped. Dallet, who had experience as a prosecutor in addition to her time on the bench, runs an ad hitting Screnock over light sentences for a child predator and a rapist. Conservatives spent $800,000 just to make sure Screnock got through the three-way February primary. But numbers shared with WisPolitics.com also showed Dallet and her allies outspent Screnock and his backers on TV and radio in the final two weeks of the general election — more than $1.5 million backing her to under $1.1 million for Screnock. That helped drive her surprising margins in places such as Brown and Marathon counties — which have been tilting to the GOP in recent elections — as she cruises to a 12-point win. Dallet’s victory also narrows the conservative majority on the court to 4-3 and sets up a chance for liberal to re-take control if they can hold onto Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s seat this spring and knock off Walker-appointed Justice Daniel Kelly in 2020.
Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald: The two GOP legislative leaders have spent much of the last several years on different pages. Sometimes entirely different books, insiders say. And when they joined forces to push a series of changes in a lame-duck session, it generated largely negative headlines and national attention accusing them of a power grab ahead of Dems taking over the guv and AG’s offices. Still, they also emerge from a difficult election environment with solid majorities — thanks to gerrymandered maps and superior campaigns, insiders say — as the political community watches to see how divided government operates with the two veteran leggies vs. Gov.-elect Tony Evers. Legislatively, it was an often tense year. When the Assembly adjourned its regular session in February, Vos and his Assembly GOP team passed much of the agenda Gov. Scott Walker wanted and left it up to the Senate to finish the job. Even as Fitzgerald complained that he’d been cut out of negotiations between the guv and Vos on things such as Walker’s child tax credit, Vos said his chamber wasn’t coming back and if the Senate didn’t want to pass the plan, “they can kill it and take the blame.” But the leaders manage to pull the legislative equivalent of a rabbit out a hat with the Senate in March approving Walker’s child tax credit and a less expensive sales tax holiday than the Assembly wanted. And Vos comes back — but in extraordinary session — to finish work on Walker priorities such as a school safety package. But they also ultimately fall short on passing other items on Walker’s to-do list, including state protections for those with pre-existing conditions and an incentive package to keep open a Kimberly-Clark plant, the latter of which was the reason Republicans originally gave for coming in for a lame-duck session. In November, Republicans pick up one seat in the Senate to make the GOP majority 19-14 next session, still one seat fewer than Republicans had to begin 2018. And they only lose one seat in the Assembly to go into 2019 with a 63-36 advantage. Not long after the elections, Vos formally asks for bills to be drafted that he argues will balance the powers between the executive and legislative branches, drawing immediate pushback from those who say it’s a power grab. Republicans drop some of the more controversial items, such as moving the 2020 presidential primary to an entirely new election in the hopes of bolstering the hopes of Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly. But such provisions draw so much early attention that Republicans quickly lose the messaging game about the extraordinary session. Moving forward, insiders see Vos trying to position himself as the lead GOP voice to counter Evers, and that relationship could determine whether the next two years are ones of gridlock or compromise in the state Capitol.
Brad Schimel: The Republican becomes only the second attorney general in more than 25 years to lose a re-election bid. But he quickly finds a soft landing after Gov. Scott Walker appoints him to the Waukesha County bench. Early polls in his race with Dem Josh Kaul gave the Republican an edge, but also carried a warning sign: After nearly four years in office, he still wasn’t that well known. To insiders, that underscored that Schimel’s fate was likely tied to Walker’s, for good or bad. And as Walker loses his re-election bid by under 30,000 votes, Schimel falls by about 17,000. Insiders chalk up the drop-off to several factors, including the suggestion from some that Walker simply had more crossover appeal than the AG. Schimel’s backers also place some blame on a Constitution Party candidate who was endorsed by one of the state’s largest anti-abortion groups and got more than 47,000 votes. Or Schimel may have just been caught up in a bad night for Republicans. Still, his critics point to how he ran the AG’s shop as part of his downfall. Schimel touted eliminating the state’s backlog for rape kits, but Dems say he waited too long to take action. And his participation in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act — just one in a number of suits his office filed over a national issue — became a major problem as protections for those with pre-existing conditions impacted races up and down the ballot. Whatever the reasons behind his loss, Schimel quickly moves on with Walker announcing his appointment to the Waukesha County bench the day after his fellow Republican formally concedes to Kaul. The appointment makes sense to many conservatives. Considering his law enforcement credentials, including years in the Waukesha County DA’s office, it’s hard to argue with his qualifications. What’s more, he’ll have to face the voters in the April election for a full term, and it’s hard to beat his name ID. Underscoring his strength as a candidate, no one had filed to challenge him for the seat on the bench just days before the deadline. Still, some grumble about the process that led to Schimel getting the appointment. The vacancy was announced in September with applications due Oct. 5, when Schimel was still in a hotly contested AG’s race. Records obtained by WisPolitics.com show Schimel was listed as one of six finalists, even though the documents released didn’t include an application from the outgoing AG. What’s more, the documents show Schimel wrote letters of recommendation for four people who applied for the appointment, including one he called a “mentor.” That he skipped over those others for the job rubs some the wrong way.
Paul Ryan: Like his friend Scott Walker, the House speaker spends his final weeks in office trying to define his legacy. Unlike Walker, the Janesville Republican decided to walk away rather than risk having voters turn him out. The longtime 1st CD rep went into 2018 armed with a tax overhaul he hoped would prove a political winner for Republicans and an amazing fundraising machine the GOP saw as part of a formula to stave off the typical struggles for the party in the White House during a midterm election. But his decision to forgo re-election was seen by many as one of several signs of trouble ahead, particularly because it was viewed as a psychological blow to the caucus in sending a message about the GOP’s chances of holding onto the majority. Some had thought even with poor prospects, Ryan would still seek re-election and then resign his seat if the House fell into Dem hands. But others said that would have violated Ryan’s vow to the voters in his district. With his decision announced, Ryan continues pulling in money for the House GOP caucus while struggling to manage his caucus. And while Ryan continues to raise gobs of money on his way out the door, there’s little to show for it, insiders say. Republicans lose their majority in the House. His backers try to focus on the tax overhaul as a defining accomplishment, but critics cite Ryan’s failure to address entitlement reform — another of his career goals — is part of the reason the deficit is exploding as he leaves office. And while his backers laud him as an ideas guy, detractors point to a record of few of his sponsored bills becoming law over two decades in office. Finally, while he called for civility in his farewell address, insiders note he at times struggled to stand up to Donald Trump when the president set a most uncivil tone; also, they fume over the House GOP’s campaign arm using nasty tactics. What’s more, critics say one of his final acts a speaker is watching a shutdown of the federal government in a final dysfunctional exclamation point to his time trying to lead the the unruly House GOP caucus. Considering the lofty ideals Ryan espoused, some say, it was a disappointing conclusion to his time as Wisconsin’s first House speaker.
Scott Walker: The outgoing guv wants to define his legacy with a series of numbers: unemployment below 3 percent for a record 10 straight months; a budget surplus of $588.5 million in the final full fiscal year before he leaves office; and more than $8 billion in tax cuts. But one number hangs over that legacy: 1,324,307, the number of people who decided to replace Walker in the East Wing with Dem Tony Evers. Considering the environment and a host of other factors, the result is not a surprise to many. But considering the advantages Walker had with a strong economy, a massive advantage in fundraising and unmatched name ID, it’s still a resounding rebuke of the guv’s time in office. To his credit, backers say, Walker early on saw a difficult 2018 coming and did what he could to prepare for it. That goes back to the 2017-19 budget he introduced to pump some $640 million into K-12 education after he toured the state and realized how vulnerable he was on the issue. He then started sounding the alarm of a possible blue wave after Dem Patty Schachtner in January won a western Wisconsin state Senate seat that had been in Republican hands for 16 years and that Trump had won by 17.1 points just 14 months before. And he warned his supporters against complacency after liberal candidate Rebecca Dallet won an open state Supreme Court seat by 12 points. Along the way, he pushed GOP lawmakers to sign off on state protections for those with pre-existing conditions and to approve a new child tax credit. Both were seen as an attempt to win over suburban voters, particularly women, amid signs that the GOP brand was suffering with those traditional Republican supporters with President Trump tweeting away in the White House. But some say as much as Walker seemed to understand the electorate was restless, he couldn’t find a message that resonated. Critics say his sudden move to the middle came across as phony, and even Republicans noted the steady stream of new messages he delivered to voters struggled to connect. It may have been Walker fatigue after five campaigns in eight years between his guv runs, recall campaign and failed presidential bid. Or it may have been the GOP’s struggles in a difficult midterm. Now, insiders wonder what Walker will do next. In office for almost all of his adult life, few can see the guv simply walking away. He’s too much of a political animal, they say. But the Walker brand is also damaged — at least for now — with state voters.
Randy Bryce: The Caledonia Dem raises nearly $8.5 million in his bid for southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st CD — an unheard of amount for a first-time House candidate. He also spends more than $8.1 million. But it isn’t nearly enough to offset his baggage or the GOP tilt of the district, and he ends up losing to Republican Bryan Steil by more than 12 points. Bryce’s campaign caught fire in 2017 with a viral video, and he instantly became a vehicle for those who didn’t like House Speaker Paul Ryan to make a cash commitment to making the Janesville Republican’s re-elect tougher than usual. As Ryan decides to drop out of the race, Bryce’s backers credit him with pushing the speaker aside. But Republicans reject the suggestion, saying there was plenty of fodder to knock Bryce down a few pegs if Ryan had decided to seek re-election. Instead, the job of prosecuting the case against Bryce falls to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to house GOP leadership. And it spares no expense stripping the bark off Bryce, airing much of his dirty laundry. That includes an ad calling him a “deadbeat” for falling behind on his child support. Bryce returns fire with his ex-wife coming to his defense. Still, the CLF also hit Bryce with an ad featuring his brother endorsing Steil and one detailing his nine arrests. Insiders note it was an unusual amount of attention being paid to a seat Donald Trump won by 10 points just two years earlier. Even as some Dems held out hope Bryce could flip the seat, he comes up well short. But still a hero to some in the progressive movement, he lands a gig with the Working Families Party that includes recruiting candidates for future races.
Donald Trump: Insiders say the tweeter-in-chief casts a long shadow over over politics across the country — and Wisconsin. As insiders pour over the results of the November election, they see Trump’s fingerprints all over the results, both the good they see for Republicans — and the very bad. On the one hand, Trump’s performance in 2016 in rural areas of the state seemed to carry over into 2018 with Assembly districts in western Wisconsin that were once seen as good pickup opportunities for Dems turning into solid GOP wins. At the same time, Gov. Scott Walker’s numbers took a serious hit in the heart of Republican country — Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties — a sign to many of the damage Trump has done to the GOP brand with suburban voters. Just look at the 14th Assembly District, some note. The seat, which includes Milwaukee suburbs such as Wauwatosa, had been seen as a rock-solid Republican seat that was the political home to both Walker and GOP U.S. Senate nominee Leah Vukmir. But Dem Robyn Vining wins it narrowly, a lone bright for Assembly Dems. Insiders also note GOP Assembly members in the Milwaukee suburbs see much closer races than they’ve been used to in the past, though that’s offset somewhat by the ease in which Republicans hold onto those rural seats. Still, the 2018 results carry a warning for Trump, many note. His October visit to the Wausau area likely helped goose the numbers there for Republicans. But the turnout boom in Milwaukee and Dane counties — combined with the dip in numbers in those WOW counties — are more than enough to offset the president’s appeal in rural Wisconsin, insiders say. The president’s backers take heart in the Marquette University Law School Poll numbers, even though they have consistently shown Trump upside down. In the first poll in late winter, Trump was at 43-50 for his job approval among registered voters. By October, that was 47-50 among likely voters. His backers note Trump was upside down in 2016 leading to his surprise win in Wisconsin. But that was against a Dem nominee in Hillary Clinton, who proved to be almost as unpopular as Trump and didn’t bother to personally campaign in the state leading up to the election. The next presidential election landscape is likely to be very different, say election watchers. They look at the U.S. Senate wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — three states that were decisive in the president’s 2016 victory — as an ominous sign for Trump and his relationship with voters in those states..