The losing statewide campaigns in the Nov. 8 election each made key mistakes that led to incumbents Tony Evers and Ron Johnson winning reelection, according to a panel of journalists and political strategists.

Dem consultant Sachin Chheda at a WisPolitics.com luncheon hosted by UW-Milwaukee Nov. 10 said Barnes failed to make the Oshkosh Republican unelectable. And that’s especially important in a race where polls showed a sizable portion of voters didn’t have a strong opinion on the incumbent. 

“You have an incumbent who, you know, maybe 10 percent of voters still didn’t have a strong opinion about, in Ron Johnson,” he said. “And I think that probably helped lift him.” 

Many critics have said Barnes would have done better to attack Johnson in the closing weeks. 

But GOP consultant Bill McCoshen agreed with Chheda that Barnes’ positive ads about himself late in the race helped close a gap that had been created by a sustained attack from Republicans on Barnes’ crime stances.

McCoshen said Barnes’ campaign failed by not quickly answering the soft-on-crime attack ads. Instead, the attack went unanswered for eight weeks.

Chheda also noted the Barnes campaign’s failure to respond to the attacks right away, but he said Barnes’ messaging shined by continuously knocking Johnson on abortion. 

“I understand the concerns that people, especially partisans, want to see fight, fight, fight,” he said. “But I think they were making very rational and smart decisions about how to reach the audience they were trying to reach. They were trying to make Mandela tenable again to independent voters who have concerns, and that wasn’t going to happen.” 

Failing to immediately respond to attacks also helped sink GOP construction exec Tim Michels in his bid for governor, McCoshen said. He called the lack of public response to ads talking about sexual harassment at Michels Corporation “a massive error by the Michels campaign.”

“If you listen to Tim Michels on the stump, he had an unbelievable answer,” he said. “But he was giving that answer to 50 people; 100 people, 150. Meanwhile, Tony Evers and his allies were telling millions of people something different.”

TMJ4 Anchor Charles Benson noted another interesting takeaway from the guv and Senate races — the numbers in the AG race between Dem incumbent Josh Kaul and GOP Fond du Lac County DA Eric Toney.

“The two attorney general candidates got more votes than the losing candidates in the governor and U.S. Senate,” he said. “Think about that. All that money spent to get you to buy into a candidate in the U.S. Senate or governor’s race.”

But McCoshen noted the difference in the governor’s race likely resulted from the votes to independent Joan Beglinger, who received 26,987. But her votes plus Michels’ total was still less than Toney’s 1,297,840. 

McCoshen also noted of the four candidates vying for top statewide races, the two that spent the most money won. Johnson and his allies outspent Barnes and Evers and his allies outspent Michels. 

McCoshen also agreed with Chheda Dems did well to target college students on abortion issues. 

“And it made a significant difference,” McCoshen added. “That Gen Z group is the only group that voted for Democrats this cycle. The only one.”

Chheda said another factor that could have brought Michels down was “bad blood” between his supporters and those who supported former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the primary. 

“I think that bad blood continued through November 8th,” he said. “I think it continues today between the Kleefisch and Michels camps.”

He added there were several county parties that did not get as involved in the guv race as they did in the U.S. Senate race supporting Johnson.

“Those things are all inside baseball until you have a race that’s decided by 27,000 votes,” he said.

But McCoshen, a Michels backer, argued “common sense” says the Republican primary resulted in the best candidate for the general election. 

“The bottom line is, if Kevin Nicholson or Rebecca Kleefisch was the stronger candidate, they would have won the primary,” he said. “If you can’t convince a majority of your own party you’re the best candidate, there’s no chance you’re going to win the general election. That’s common sense.”

Chheda said Republican candidates have to appeal to more voters than just those who turn out for primaries. 

“There’s just division,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s right-center division as much as it is Trump or not Trump, the party infrastructure versus not the party infrastructure.” 

McCoshen also said Republicans have to figure out how to counter the growing impact of deep-blue Dane County to win statewide. 

“For Republicans, if they want to win statewide, they better figure out Dane County,” a former campaign manager and aide to Gov. Tommy Thompson said. “But I’ve been saying that for 20 years, and they’ve done nothing different.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Bill Glauber noted Dane County’s Dem dominance was compounded by a loss of ground in Waukesha County, where Republicans have historically shined. 

“Even though they won the big statewide race,” he said, referring to Johnson’s third term win, “60-40 in Waukesha sort of changes some calculations.” 

Chheda agreed, adding if Dems have maxed out their performance there and Republicans begin to peel even 10 percent of the vote back, Dems could be in trouble. But he also noted areas around Milwaukee are turning away from Republicans more in recent years. 

“I think, you know, in 2024 the Democratic presidential candidate will probably win the city of Brookfield,” he said. “They’re not going to win Waukesha County, but you know Brookfield’s the next Wauwatosa. Mequon’s the next Bayside.”

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