Democrats dreaming of a blue wave this November found another harbinger on the shores of Wisconsin on Tuesday. Democrat Caleb Frostman beat GOP state Rep. Andre Jacque in a special election for the state Senate, in a district Republicans had held since the 1970s and that went for Donald Trump by 17 percentage points just two years ago.
The pick-up was the 43rd state legislative seat Democrats have flipped nationwide since Trump was sworn in. And it follows a pair of similar victories for the left in Wisconsin this year. Democrats won a different but similarly conservative Senate seat in January, and their preferred candidate claimed a spot on the state Supreme Court by double digits four months later.
Wisconsin Republicans are trying to shrug off their latest loss by pointing to their victory in Tuesday’s other special election, which was for a general assembly seat in another conservative district. But in reality, the most the GOP can reasonably say is that won a race that they should have, and even that would be sugarcoating the results. The Republican candidate’s margin of victory was about half of what it had been in the past two elections in that district, making it the latest in a long string of special elections where Democrats have significantly outperformed the partisan makeup of the districts, even in defeat.
National Democrats have other reasons to be optimistic. Historical headwinds are blowing against Republicans, and the president’s approval rating and the generic congressional ballot, even as both occasionally inch in the direction of the GOP, suggest Democrats are primed to pick up seats this fall—although not necessarily in the numbers they need in win back both the House and Senate. Given the fluidity of polling, though, it’s the special-election results (at the state and federal levels) that are arguably the party’s best reason for hope. And the Wisconsin results are all the more noteworthy given Trump’s shocking win there in 2016, and Democrats’ aggressive efforts to win back voters in the swing state.
GOP Gov. Scott Walker had done everything in his power to avoid holding Tuesday’s special elections—which were to fill seats vacated by a pair of Republicans he had appointed to his administration—but a state appellate court ultimately forced him to schedule them. Wisconsin lawmakers aren’t expected to return to work until early next year, which means the special elections were, in practice, mostly just a test run for this November, when both winners will be up for re-election. But the results of those tests will further excite Democrats, who have made Wisconsin a priority of late.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is one of 10 Democrats in the upper chamber facing re-election in a state Trump won. But she’s now considered among the safest of the bunch by nonpartisan handicappers like the Cook Political Report. Meanwhile, instead of playing defense in the Badger State, Democrats are increasingly going on the offensive.
Organizing for America, a nonprofit that evolved out of Obama’s campaign, is working to help Democrats gain control of the state Senate and defeat Walker this fall, in hopes of redrawing the state’s heavily gerrymandered congressional map. Likewise, House Democrats have targeted at least two U.S. congressional seats, including the one currently held by House Speaker Paul Ryan. While Ryan has decided to retire rather than run for another term, a victory by mustachioed steelworker Randy Bryce would be extra sweet for Democrats, particularly if paired with a win over Walker. Tuesday’s results don’t guarantee any of that will happen, of course, but they do suggest GOP voters in the state are increasingly willing to pull the lever for Democrats.