Democratic win in northwest Wisconsin sends political shock wave

A rare win by a Democrat in a northwestern Wisconsin Senate district Republicans have held since 2001 sent shockwaves through the state and national political world Wednesday.


Democrats heralded the win as evidence of a building blue wave that could lead to more victories in November — including in the larger 7th Congressional District held by Republican Rep. Sean Duffy — while Republicans sounded the alarm that they need to hone their message and cajole their grassroots supporters in order to maintain full control of state government.


“WAKE UP CALL: Can’t presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin. Help us share the good news,” Gov. Scott Walker tweeted along with half a dozen other similar tweets early Wednesday.

Walker also announced a corps of volunteer coordinators in all 72 counties to help with his re-election campaign. He holds a significant fundraising advantage over a sprawling field of Democrats, but faces his first re-election with an unpopular Republican president in the White House.


Political observers and activists involved in the District 10 Senate race said a myriad of issues helped St. Croix County Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner’s defeat Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, in Tuesday’s special election to replace former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, who took a job in Walker’s cabinet.


Some pointed to a surge in Democratic enthusiasm ignited by the unpopularity of Republican President Donald Trump, whom Jarchow supported in 2016. Others said local issues, specifically Jarchow’s support for bills that have reduced environmental protections and local zoning control, hurt his chances.


“We absolutely believe local issues motivated people in this race,” said Staush Gruszynski, political director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “All of our communications were very positive about Patty and the impact she can have on the local environment. We heard a lot from our members about Jarchow’s anti-conservation background.”


Schachtner won with 54.6 percent of the vote to Jarchow’s 44.2 percent, a remarkable win given Harsdorf won the district 14 months ago by a 26-point margin. The feat is perhaps more remarkable given reliably Democratic student voters at UW-River Falls are still on winter break.


Turnout in the special election was a quarter of what it was in 2016, though Republican strategist Brian Fraley said Republicans tend to do better in low turnout elections. He called Schachtner’s win “the most significant political development in Wisconsin since Walker won the recalls.”


“The Republicans don’t understand what the Trump victory was,” Fraley said. “It wasn’t about their agenda, because he didn’t run on their agenda. It was about Trump. So it doesn’t transfer. The Trump positives don’t transfer to the Republican candidate, but the Trump negatives do clearly.”


Schachtner’s victory boosts state Democrats who have been struggling to make gains since Republicans took over state government in 2010 and represents a 28-point swing from the 2016 presidential election, according to Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin.

Republicans have held the seat since Harsdorf was first elected in 2000. Before that, Democrat Alice Clausing held the seat since 1992. UW-River Falls political science professor Neil Kraus said the district has become more conservative over time.

On Wednesday morning the district, which is increasingly part of the growing Minneapolis suburbs but still dominated by rural towns, was the talk of the nation.

“Here I am watching Morning Joe (on MSNBC) and they’re talking about the Senate District 10 race,” Kraus said. “It’s remarkable.”


In 2016, President Donald Trump won the district 55 percent to 38 percent and in 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district 52 percent to 46 percent for former President President Barack Obama.


Democrats celebrated the win as a sign of a wave of Democratic support overturning seats held by conservatives, including in the governor’s office and on the state Supreme Court — both of which are up for election this year.


“(Schachtner’s) message of building up our communities and bridging our differences clearly had an impact as we saw some of the best numbers Democrats have seen in this district in decades,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said in a statement late Tuesday. “The results from today show that Wisconsin is ready for a change in Madison.”


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