If History Is Any Guide

 Joe Murray  |    March 08, 2017

In the November 2014 midterm elections, Democrats suffered record losses across the board. The second “Obama midterm” had taken a toll on the party from top to bottom. Shortly thereafter, in a December 1, 2014, article titled “Why Parties Should Hope They Lose the White House,” University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato detailed why a party is better off, structurally, from losing a presidential election.

In his article, Dr. Sabato wrote, “the surest price the winning party will pay is defeat of hundreds of their most promising candidates and officeholders for Senate, House, governorships, and state legislative posts. Every eight-year presidency has emptied the benches for the triumphant party, and recently it has gotten even worse.”

Average Chance Over Eight Years (Excluding Obama)

Governors   -10.7
Senate   -8.3
House   -36.4
State legislative seats   -450.6
State legislative chambers controlled   -15.4

Sabato’s piece broke down the losses, detailed in the chart above, for the party of the White House in eight post-World War II presidencies and concluded, “The historical record is clear: A party surges when it elects a president, but goes into a roller-coaster decline shortly thereafter. Even if the party makes up significant ground in the president’s reelection campaign, by the end of the eight-year cycle, it is in worse shape, sometimes (as with Obama) much worse.”

So if history is any guide, what could this reoccurring political fallout mean for Wisconsin Republicans as they look ahead to the first “Trump midterm” election in 2018? The GOP controls all the levels of power in Wisconsin today. They have the governorship with Scott Walker, the office of Attorney General with Brad Schimel, one of two U.S. Senate seats with Ron Johnson, five of eight Congressional seats, five of seven seats on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and dominating control of both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature.

In short, it means that Wisconsin Republicans will be very exposed next year during an election cycle that could be very difficult for the GOP, historically speaking. Here’s a quick look at just how exposed the GOP will be in 2018.

Gableman running for reelection

Conservative state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman will likely run for a second 10-year term to the Wisconsin Supreme Court next year. First elected in 2008, Gableman could quickly find himself the first statewide candidate in spring 2018 with a big target on his back by Democrats, who failed to recruit a candidate to challenge fellow conservative Justice Annette Ziegler in 2017. Grassroots Democrats will certainly want to avoid giving another conservative justice a “free ride,” especially if the political landscape shifts in their favor over the next 12 months. The Supreme Court election will be held in April 2018.

Walker running for reelection 

The governor said he will make a final decision on his possible 2018 reelection bid after the legislature passes the state budget later this year. The real surprise, however, will be if Gov. Walker decides against running for a third four-year term; he has sent very strong signals he intends to run again next year.

Assuming Walker does run for another term, he will be running in a midterm election for the first time without Barack Obama in the White House, and it could complicate his reelection prospects. 

Walker’s 2010 and 2014 elections were “Obama midterms,” and they were both historically bad elections for Democrats up and down the ticket. Republicans were elected in record numbers across the board: governorships, both houses of Congress, and especially state legislative seats. In 2010, Wisconsin was arguably the state that flipped the most dramatically from blue to red.

In 2018, Walker will be running in Trump’s first midterm election, and if history is any guide, it could easily be a very difficult election cycle for the battle-tested, recall-surviving Walker.

Baldwin running for reelection

First-term U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) will also be running for reelection in 2018. Baldwin was elected to the Senate in 2012 during a presidential election cycle that favored Democrats. Obama defeated Romney by seven points, and Baldwin defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson by five points. It was the seventh consecutive win for Democrats in Wisconsin presidential elections, and Baldwin benefited from Obama’s big win in the Badger State.

Next year, Baldwin will run in a midterm election that should favor her party and her reelection prospects — if history is any guide. If Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, Baldwin would be facing her first reelection with a Democrat in the White House, a difficult task given historical voting trends. But Trump carried the day, and Baldwin could easily benefit from a political landscape that favors her reelection prospects.

Schimel running for reelection

Republican attorney general Brad Schimel will be up for reelection in 2018. Schimel was first elected in 2014 with an easy win over another first-time statewide candidate, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ. Schimel, like Gov. Walker, was elected in a great year for Republicans. The 2014 election was a GOP “wave” election, and Schimel cruised to an easy win over Happ, 51–45 percent.

With Trump in the White House, Schimel will face the same potentially difficult political landscape as Walker and other Republicans on the ticket. If Trump’s job approval ratings slump and voters grow unhappy over GOP performance in Washington, D.C., Schimel’s reelection prospects could be compromised just like fellow GOP Gov. Walker.

Legislative elections

In Wisconsin, Republicans control both chambers of the legislature. The GOP holds a 20-13 edge in the state Senate and a 65-35 majority in the state Assembly. With historically large majorities in both houses, Republicans are likely to remain in control even if the 2018 midterm elections prove to be trending well for Democrats. But those same large majorities will provide Democrats plenty of chances to shrink the GOP numbers if the political winds blow cold for majority Republicans.

“Unconstitutional gerrymander”

There is, however, a wild card to play for legislative Democrats. In November 2016, a federal court overturned Wisconsin’s GOP-drawn legislative maps as an “unconstitutional gerrymander” that, in the opinion of the court, likely played a major factor in the Republican party’s overwhelming electoral success. The court ordered legislators and Gov. Walker to redraw and approve new maps by November 1, 2017.

The case is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and could have an impact on partisan redistricting nationally. If the GOP is required to redraw all 99 Assembly as well as 33 Senate seats, it could complicate their goal of maintaining their comfortable majorities after the 2018 election cycle. Republicans hope the Supreme Court will reverse the lower federal court’s decision, while Democrats hope to the decision will stand and the new maps will provide opportunities to pick up seats in 2018.

Democrats in Wisconsin have had very little success over the last seven years; when Trump carried Wisconsin in 2016, it was a complete surprise and stunning blow to their party. But Republicans should be mindful that history is not on their side in 2018. They may discover why Dr. Sabato says political parties should hope they lose the White House.

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

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