It’s always dangerous to look into a political crystal ball and accurately predict outcomes 19 months in advance of an election, but recent events and political history offer plenty of clues on what we might expect for the November 2014 midterm elections in Wisconsin.
Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch are expected to run for re-election again next year, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen will also likely run for a third four-year term, and five Republican and three Democrat members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation will run again. In the state Legislature, 15 of 33 members of the Wisconsin state Senate and all 99 members of the state Assembly will also be on the ballot in 2014.
Here’s my early big picture look at the Wisconsin political landscape today and some historical facts surrounding post-World War II midterm elections.
Top-of-the-ticket influence: “six year itch” and Scott Walker
At the federal level, Cook Political Report writer Amy Walter highlighted the post-World War II midterm election historical pattern this way: “Since 1958, the party of a re-elected president has lost an average of 29 House seats and six Senate seats in that midterm election, which goes by the nickname the ‘six year itch.’ Only once in those six midterm elections has the party holding the White House gained seats .” In short, the president’s party tends to have a bad midterm election, a tendency that could benefit Gov. Walker.
A look at incumbent governors running for re-election, or leaving on their own terms, in Wisconsin since 1958 illustrates the level of difficulty in defeating a sitting incumbent. There have been a total of 11 governors since 1958. Of those 11, seven were re-elected at least once (64%), two were defeated in their first re-election attempt (18%), and two failed to be elected after inheriting the office when the incumbent left early (18%).
From a purely historical perspective, Gov. Walker’s chances for re-election in 2014 appear strong. Unless the typical “six year itch” midterm dynamic is distorted or Democrats run an unusually strong candidate against Walker, he could enter next year’s election with the wind at his back. Looking back even further at Wisconsin gubernatorial elections, a Humphrey School of Public Affairs study shows governors in Wisconsin, going back to statehood in 1848, have been re-elected in 34 of 46 contests, or 74 percent of the time. Defeating incumbents from either party is very difficult.
Congressional and legislative redistricting
Every 10 years, states are required to redraw congressional and legislative districts to reflect changing demographics in their state. In 2011, Republicans took full control of Wisconsin state government and immediately began the process of remapping congressional and legislative districts to their significant advantage.
The results from the 2012 congressional and legislative elections are, as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political reporter Craig Gilbert explains, “A striking testament to the power of the GOP redistricting plan adopted last year , boosting the number of Republican-friendly seats in Madison and Washington.” In a post-election analysis of the 2012 Wisconsin elections, Gilbert broke down the numbers on how the newly drawn maps benefited the GOP:
- Barack Obama carried Wisconsin by 6.8 points statewide. In spite of his strong top-of-the-ticket win, the GOP maintained their advantage in U. S. House seats, recaptured the state Senate and increased their sizeable majority in the state Assembly.
- Mitt Romney carried five of the state’s eight U.S. House seats in a year when President Obama swept the top of the ticket.
- 20 of the 33 Senate districts voted more Republican than the state as a whole. Republicans currently hold 18 Senate seats.
- 60 of the 99 Assembly districts voted more Republican than the state as a whole. The GOP currently holds 60 seats in the lower chamber.
- With so many Democratic votes concentrated in Dane and Milwaukee counties, Republicans have a numerical advantage in more districts across Wisconsin.
Gilbert says there are very few districts that mirror Wisconsin’s overall partisan balance. “To create more ‘red’ Republican seats, the GOP plan moved Democratic voters from competitive districts into ones that were already very ‘blue.’ The result: more lopsided seats on both sides and fewer competitive ones.” Democrats will have to fight on Republican terrain and work with the terrible hand they’ve been dealt on the maps.
The other significant factor in midterm elections is declining voter turnout from the previous presidential election, known as cyclical “drop-off.” Political science professor Tomas Schaller of the University of Maryland describes “drop-off” this way: “‘Drop-off’ is the political science term for the decline in turnout between the high-water benchmark of presidential elections and other electoral moments: midterm elections for both chambers of congress; state and local elections for governor, state legislature, county officers and various municipal officials held in non-presidential years.”
Schaller points out that “Democrats generally perform better in presidential years while Republicans tend to excel in midterm cycles: Lower midterm turnouts tend to skew the electorate toward older, white and/or more affluent voters.” This is clearly true in Wisconsin historically and even more so today in our hyper-polarized state. The turnout dynamics of the 2014 midterm election will be challenging for the legislative minority to overcome.
With the traditional “six year itch” history and a post-redistricting landscape that clearly favors the GOP in Wisconsin, Scott Walker and Republicans feel that 2014 could be a good year for their party. But redistricting isn’t the only important factor in legislative and congressional elections, and Gov. Walker could find himself in a much more competitive race if he can’t point to strong job growth after four years in office.
Democrats will work hard to recruit quality candidates, raise money and run strong campaigns. But they should not use their top-of-the-ticket success in 2012 to predict their fortunes in 2014. Midterm elections are different from presidential elections in several ways. That’s why Wisconsin can elect a conservative like GOP Senator Ron Johnson in 2010 and a progressive such as Tammy Baldwin in 2012.
Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA.