Wisconsin already expected to be a war zone for the 2020 presidential race

, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

It has been more than a decade since Wisconsin was the white-hot epicenter of a red-hot presidential race.

But that’s precisely the scenario that looms two years from now.

“I think Wisconsin is going to be one of the most important (battlegrounds), and kind of a bellwether for the rest of the Midwest in the competition for the presidency,” said GOP strategist Keith Gilkes, a longtime adviser to Gov. Scott Walker.

Almost everything about the Nov. 6 midterm election bolstered Wisconsin’s status as a top presidential target in 2020, when this state has no race for governor or U.S. Senate but can expect an all-out war over its 10 electoral votes.

The state swung back to Democrats for governor and U.S. Senate after Republican Donald Trump carried Wisconsin for president two years ago.

But Democrats failed to dent the GOP’s stranglehold on the state Legislature, and they won the governor’s race by scarcely more than a percentage point.

Taken together, the razor-thin battles for president in 2016 and governor in 2018 have underscored this state’s essentially “swingy” character.

They have also laid bare the limits of each party’s appeal and the challenges both sides face in the Great Lakes battlegrounds that could easily tip the 2020 election.

Tony Evers’ slender victory for governor was a reminder that no matter how well Democrats do in their big “base” cities, their struggles in small towns and rural counties leave them little margin for error.

“There is no group of voters where we can say, ‘We can safely ignore them,’” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who polled for Evers’ winning campaign.

 “To state the obvious, a Democrat can’t win (Wisconsin) without doing well in Milwaukee and Madison. But it’s also quite clear you can do well in Milwaukee and Madison and still get killed statewide,” said Mellman, referring to the party’s losses in the recent past.

For Republicans, Walker’s defeat was a reminder that no matter how well the GOP does with rural voters, it can ill afford to lose ground in the suburbs when it’s being blown out in the big cities.

One GOP pollster called the suburbs a national “killing ground” for Republicans in 2018.

“What Trump demonstrated in 2016 is a unique way of winning Wisconsin — driving up the rural vote overall, with an agenda and message that responded to their values and concerns over those of suburban and urban voters,” said Gilkes. “The challenge for Trump is you can’t just exclusively rely on rural voters.”

In 2020, GOP and Democrats can’t afford to ignore the “blue wall”

The Democrats’ most obvious route to an electoral majority in 2020 is to take back the three “blue wall” states that Trump narrowly flipped in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. That would put Democrats over the top if nothing else on the map changes.

“I think re-assembling the ‘blue wall’ is probably the most viable path for the Democrats,” said University of Texas political scientist Daron Shaw in an email exchange.

Shaw, who advised President George W. Bush’s re-election campaigns in 2000 and 2004, said Republicans would love to play offense and pick up a Clinton state such as Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado or Virginia. But the GOP suffered setbacks in all four in 2018.

“The most important battles will be Republicans defending Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin,” said Shaw.

Mellman, the Democratic pollster, argued his party has more paths to victory in 2020 than the GOP. One is a southern path that targets Florida and North Carolina. Some Democrats think Arizona and Georgia, longtime red states, are becoming better targets for their party than the familiar battlegrounds of Ohio and Iowa, which Trump won by 8 and 9 points two years ago.

But “there is clearly the northern route of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania,” said Mellman, who is based in Washington, D.C., and polled for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. All three states regularly voted Democratic for president before Trump.

“If the Democratic candidate travels to them, invests in them, works them, there is every likelihood of winning those states,” said Mellman.

Democratic strategist Tanya Bjork said her party has taken to heart the failure of the Clinton campaign to visit Wisconsin or put much effort into Wisconsin or Michigan in 2016.

“I would expect the Democratic nominee and hopefully the Democratic Party has learned their lesson that you can’t ignore your firewall,” said Bjork, who ran the Clinton effort in Wisconsin and pushed unsuccessfully, she says, for more resources from the national campaign.

“We can’t let that happen again,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who is based in Madison.

Wisconsin “is one of the six to eight states that are going to matter,” said Maslin. Both sides understand its significance, he said. “Trump has made a big deal out of how important Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania were to him. He knows it. He has to come back to them.”

As 2020 approaches, a few things stand out about Wisconsin’s place on the map

First, Wisconsin was the actual “tipping point” state in 2016, to borrow a concept used by the analytical website “538” to identify pivotal battlegrounds. If you ranked all the states from most pro-Trump to most pro-Clinton in their vote, Wisconsin occupied the exact electoral center: its 10 electoral votes were the ones that mathematically tipped the Electoral College to Trump.

Second, the state’s history as a battleground runs deep. The essence of a presidential battleground is that it is very close when the national election is very close. There have been three presidential elections in the past two decades that were decided by small margins in a handful of states (2000, 2004, 2016). Some battlegrounds that were extremely close in 2000 and 2004 were not in 2016 (Iowa, New Mexico). And some states that weren’t competitive in 2000 and 2004 were hotly contested in 2016 (North Carolina).

Wisconsin was decided by less than a percentage point in all three close elections in recent presidential history (it is the only such state).

“Wisconsin is the new Ohio,” said Republican strategist Brad Todd, who is based in northern Virginia and has worked on Wisconsin races. “It has become a state that goes, albeit narrowly, with the party that does better nationally in that election.”

Wisconsin’s demographic makeup is another reason it bears watching. The state has a high proportion of white working-class voters, Trump’s political base. In the 2018 mid-term election, 55 percent of its voters were whites without a college degree, compared with 41 percent nationwide. Ohio had a similar share of blue-collar white voters, while Minnesota (51 percent), Michigan (47 percent) and Pennsylvania (44 percent) all had disproportionate shares.

That gives Trump every chance to compete for these states again in 2020. White blue-collar and rural voters continued to vote Republican in 2018 (in some places at even higher levels than 2016), even as urban and college-educated voters grew more Democratic.

In states like Wisconsin, those crosscurrents leave both parties on a knife’s edge.

Take the Walker race

The outgoing governor lost the big Democratic cities of Milwaukee and Madison by historically huge midterm margins. His winning margins were smaller than 2014 in the most populous Fox Valley counties (such as Brown and Outagamie), and in his “base” suburban counties outside Milwaukee (such as very Republican Waukesha and Ozaukee).

Compared with 2014, Walker lost ground in the state’s 35 most densely populated counties.

But he gained ground in 16 of the state’s 20 least densely populated counties, and in almost every county across Wisconsin’s northern tier.

“Scott Walker did even better in rural areas than we ever imagined or thought we could,” said Gilkes.

Despite an unfavorable climate for his party this year, Walker’s support in “Trump Country” came just shy of re-electing him.

The lesson of Wisconsin’s recent political history is that both parties pursue a “base-only” strategy at their peril.

The questions on the Republican side start with the southeastern suburban counties (led by Waukesha), where Walker did worse than he did in 2014 but better than Trump did in 2016. The GOP needs to stem its losses with women and college graduates.

Meanwhile, Democrats would like to narrow the gap with rural and blue-collar whites, as Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle did in 2006, President Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin did in her comfortable 2018 re-election.

But that will be hard to do in 2020. Trump’s approval rating with “non-college” whites (more than half the state’s electorate) was 54 percent in the Wisconsin exit poll Nov. 6, and Evers lost them by 17 points to Walker. Just one rural area in the state that swung hard to Trump in 2016 truly tacked back to Democrats in the 2018 governor’s race: Wisconsin’s lightly populated southwest, a region with a history of swings and ticket-splitting.

Trump’s approval rating among all voters in the Wisconsin exit poll was a respectable 48 percent — better than his numbers in virtually all the pre-election polling.

“You go back to Gore (2000) and Kerry (2004) — dead even. Trump last time — dead even. This time for governor — dead even,” said Maslin, the Democratic pollster. “In that mythical, really close national election, if that’s what we’re heading for, I think we’re going to be right smack in the cross hairs .”

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