The GOP Is in Trouble in Wisconsin
One has to imagine that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his Republican acolytes are breathing a sigh of relief after this week. On Wednesday, it looked to all the world as if his advocate-on-the-bench, state Supreme Court justice David Prosser, had been narrowly defeated in an enormous upset by JoAnne Kloppenburg. Walker was already scrambling, with an absurd statement about how Madison voted one way, but the rest of the state voted the other way. It was a time of high crisis for the GOP, to be sure.
But then came the Waukesha miracle. A Republican county clerk, and a former employee of Prosser's, found the mother of all tabulation errors. Next thing you know, a 300-vote GOP deficit blossoms into a lead that, as other counties have also retabulated, sits right on the knife edge of automatic recount. With the margin now presumably out of reach, the relief in Republican quarters was palpable.
That relief is, in all likelihood, temporary.
There are some real alarm numbers for the GOP in these numbers, even if they now appear to point to a decidedly narrow re-election for Prosser.
Start with the obvious points of alarm, which nonetheless deserve to be repeated. Prosser had a thirty-point lead over Kloppenburg after the primary, which was less than two months ago.
Even if you make the presumption that Kloppenburg should get the lion's share of the other votes in the primary, Prosser still had a ten-point lead that dissipated in about seven weeks. This despite the fact it is a virtual certainty that Prosser and his advocates had the money edge over Kloppenburg and her allies.
In other words, it is not unreasonable to now draw the conclusion that the Republicans are losing the message war in Wisconsin. This is evident not only in the sizeable swing in the state Supreme Court battle, but also in the Milwaukee County Executive's race, where Democrat Chris Abele throttled Republican candidate Jeff Stone by twenty-two points. Most notable in that drubbing was the fact that, like Prosser, Stone scored a higher percentage of the vote in February's primary (44%) than in April's general election (39%).
By a few other metrics, however, there is cause for concern in Tuesday's numbers (even with Thursday's...ahem...adjustments).
Few states in America have been swung as wildly between the two axis of political preferences as the state of Wisconsin. In 2008, Wisconsin looked like it was firming up its status as a blue state. President Obama carried the state easily, and Democrats held 5 of the state's 8 House seats with relative ease. 2010, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster for state Democrats, who watched the defeat of both Tom Barrett (Governor) and Russ Feingold (Senator) coupled with coming within an eyelash of being reduced to just two seats in the state's House delegation.
A lot of this, of course, can be owed to turnout. The blue areas turned out for President Obama and the Democrats on a monstrous level in 2008, and then failed to do so in 2010.
Looking at the turnout dynamics from this Supreme Court election, therefore, Republicans have to be a bit nervous that the climate that favored them in 2010 is clearly waning as we head towards the pending recall elections of 2011 and the 2012 cycle, as well.
Looking at turnout vis-a-vis the 2010 numbers, we see that among the larger counties in the state (10,000+ voters), the top seven counties in terms of retaining their 2010 turnout were all Kloppenburg counties:
Turnout on 4/5/11, as a percentage of 2010 turnout
1. Dane County (73% D)--82.7%
2. Douglas County (69% D)--82.2%
3. Green County (55% D)--81.5%
4. Columbia County (55% D)--76.0%
5. Sauk County (56% D)--73.8%
6. Eau Claire County (58% D)--73.6%
7. Portage County (60% D)--73.2%
8. Jefferson County (42% D)--72.9%
Conversely, eight of the ten large counties that did the worst job of replicating their 2010 turnout (with turnout rates between 58-66%) were counties that voted for Justice Prosser on Tuesday.
Most of the media coverage of this toss-up election flogged the analytical note that "gee, Democrats are energized in Wisconsin, but Republicans must have matched them, because it was so close."
The problem for Republicans is that the majority they have in Wisconsin was forged not with equal levels of enthusiasm, but with the chasm that was the 2010 "enthusiasm gap". And last week's electoral results make clear that the gap is closing, if not gone. This would seem to indicate the electorate that shows up in future months for recall elections, to say nothing of 2012, is not going to look like last year's electorate. That's a recipe for disappointment for Republicans in the Badger State.
As mentioned in the opening, there was considerable movement between February and April in the Prosser-Kloppenburg battle, a movement that added up to nearly 5% in favor of the challenger.
That this happened at all is incredibly significant. Logic would dictate that Prosser should have at least managed to hold his ground, or even gain incrementally. After all, he should (in theory) have a built-in vote, that he would then supplement with whatever small fraction of Winnig and Stephens voters he could peel off. That clearly did not happen. As waves of new voters came into the process in April, they skewed left, which blunted Prosser's primary edge.
In other words, it is unlikely that Prosser voters in February turned their backs on their man in April. It is considerably more likely that the million-or-so voters who participated in April, but not in February, skewed left. This speaks to the turnout issue brought up earlier in the piece.
What's more, the movement was not uniform. Prosser did manage to hold or improve on his primary percentages in 21 out of 72 counties. But these additional votes were more than offset by the net loss of support he experienced in the vast majority of Wisconsin counties. In some of those counties, furthermore, that loss of support was substantial.
One particularly notable example was in Fond du Lac County. FDL was one of the counties that was latest to report on Election night, and one that conservatives on Twitter were pinning their hopes on. FDL is a medium-sized county that went 72% for Prosser in February. This time around, however, while Prosser carried it, it was by a significantly reduced margin (61-39).
This should make Republicans nervous--one Republican in particular. Fond du Lac is the home of one Randy Hopper, the state Senator who watched as over 22,000 recall petitions were filed against him this week. If this, the reddest part of his district, has moved so dramatically in the past two months, the math gets awfully frightening for a guy who was narrowly elected to the post in the first place.
It is worth noting, furthermore, that two other state senators facing potential recalls (Luther Olsen and Glenn Grothman) represent parts of Fond Du Lac County. Grothman also reps Dodge County, which also swung 11 points in the Democratic direction between February and April, but he represents the most conservative territory in the region (63-36 for McCain in 2008). Grothman seemed to be totallly safe in last month's DailyKos poll of the eight Republicans subject to recall, but Olsen was very much in the danger zone.
While LaCrosse County did not experience a huge swing (it went roughly two points in the direction of the Democrats), it didn't need to. It was already pretty solidly blue territory, and gave Kloppenburg 59% of the vote on Tuesday. LaCrosse County is relevant, because it is the home base for Republican state senator Dan Kapanke, who almost became a Congressman in 2010 (he narrowly lost to Democratic incumbent Ron Kind).
Now, instead of cruising the halls of DC, he is the first Republican to face the recall, with petitions already filed and, as of this weekend, an announced Democratic challenger in the person of state legislator Jennifer Shilling.
The fact that his blue-tinted district remained so, and became incrementally more blue, has to be of concern for Kapanke as he fights for his political life. Especially when one considers that as recently as last November, LaCrosse was swing territory (narrowly carried by Scott Walker).
The shifting political winds could impact the recall efforts in the other direction, as well. Republicans have been crowing that they are close to being able to file petitions on one of the 14 Democratic Senators who fled the state: Robert Wirch. Wirch would arguably be the most embattled of the Dems, yet he can be calmed somewhat by the fact that his home county (Kenosha County) was one of the counties that moved the most in the Democratic direction between February and April. In February, Prosser cruised in this swing county with 56% of the vote. Last week, Kloppenburg carried the county with 53% of the vote. A nine percent swing.
Contrary to Scott Walker's absurd spin that this week's election results were about Madison vs. the rest of the state, there is ample evidence statewide that the state's political pendulum is swinging back yet again. The implications for the pending recall elections, to say nothing of the 2012 election cycle, ought to be fascinating to watch.