Is Donald Trump a Problem for Wisconsin Republicans?

 Joe Murray  |    June 08, 2016

A recent quote from an article written by Smart Politics founder and author Dr. Eric Ostermeier sums up the feeling many Republicans feel as they look ahead to the November 2016 elections: “Nervousness about the down ballot effects of a Donald Trump-headed Republican ticket this fall continues to percolate with members of Congress and conservative commentators fanning the flames that many GOP officeholders will face a disastrous Election Day as the outsider businessman is poised to win the party’s nomination in July.

If such concerns are valid, the most visible effect will likely be seen in the nation’s U.S. Senate races, where Democrats are already poised to make gains and need to net just four seats to pry back control of the chamber if they also keep the White House in their column.”

While Ostermeier is discussing the potential down-ballot effect in congressional elections, that same nervousness is gripping Wisconsin GOP legislators running for re-election in state Assembly and state Senate races this year. Republicans have had a lock on power in both chambers since 2011, along with GOP Gov. Scott Walker. If a Donald Trump-driven top of the ticket turns into an easy win or even landslide win for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, Republicans in congressional and legislative seats could face significant losses.

Polling numbers from the March 24 Marquette University Law School Poll illustrate why Republicans are so concerned:

  • Among all voters in Wisconsin, Trump’s unfavorable number was 70 percent.
  • Among women voters, Trump’s unfavorable number was 77 percent.
  • Among independent voters, Trump’s unfavorable rating was 67 percent.
  • Among all voters, Clinton leads Trump 47 percent to 37 percent in a head-to-head matchup.

Here is a brief overview of the Wisconsin 2016 political landscape five months out from the November elections.

U.S. Senate: The 2016 rematch between incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and former Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold will be greatly influenced by the presidential race in Wisconsin. If history is any guide, the party that carries Wisconsin in the presidential race will very likely win the U.S. Senate race. Since World War II, only one election has taken place where one party won the presidential election and the other party carried the U.S. Senate race: in 1968, Republican Richard Nixon carried Wisconsin and Democrat U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson was re-elected to the Senate. In today’s polarized election landscape, there is very little crossover voting, so the winner of the presidential contest in Wisconsin will almost certainly win the Senate race as well. Trump’s current polling spells real trouble for Ron Johnson.

8th Congressional District: With the retirement of U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble (R–Sherwood) in the Fox Valley’s 8th Congressional District (CD), Democrats have their best chance in years to pick up a congressional seat in Wisconsin. The 8th CD is a “lean GOP” seat with a history of flipping to the Democratic side when Democratic presidential candidates carry the Fox Valley. If Hillary Clinton carries the 8th CD in November, Democrats have a real chance to take this seat back from the GOP. This contest is now rated as a “toss up” by political prognosticators.

State Senate: Republicans control the state Senate 19-14. Democrats will need to hold all the seats they currently have and pick up a net three seats to claim a majority. If Democrats have a big night and carry Wisconsin at the top of the ticket, the state Senate could be in play. If Trump makes it a contest in November, the GOP will likely hold the upper chamber. The five seats to watch include three Republican-held seats: Sheila Harsdorf (10-Hudson), Tom Tiffany (12-Rhinelander), and the open seat held by outgoing Sen. Rick Gudex (18-Fond du Lac). The two Democrat-held seats to watch include Julie Lassa (24-Stevens Point) and Dave Hansen (30-Green Bay). Senate Democrats have targeted the “Upper House” for a possible change in power.

State Assembly: Republicans control the state Assembly by a whopping 63-36 margin. For Democrats to have any chance to pick up enough seats to claim a majority, Hillary Clinton would need a landslide win of historic proportion to make this possible. Democrats need to hold all 36 seats they have and pick up an additional 14 seats to reach a majority. Most political observers see little chance of this happening, but even a good November election for Clinton could help Democrats pick up seats in the state Assembly. The Assembly GOP majority is big and overextended, with several seats on the “vulnerable” list.

So, going back to the question: Is Donald Trump a problem for Wisconsin Republicans? Unless Trump’s numbers improve significantly in Wisconsin, GOP congressional and legislative candidates are likely to experience serious political heartburn to go with their nervousness.

Joe Murray is Director of Political and Governmental Affairs for the WRA. 

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