How Competitive Will Wisconsin Be in 2020?

 Joe Murray  |    May 13, 2019
How Competitive Will Wisconsin Be in 2020

Recent statewide elections clearly illustrate that Wisconsin remains a classic political swing state. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul pulled out very narrow wins over Scott Walker and Brad Schimel in 2018, and conservative candidate Brian Hagedorn squeaked out an extremely narrow, come-from-behind win in the 2019 spring election for state Supreme Court. The question for some insiders is what, if anything, might these recent elections tell us about next year’s presidential election in Wisconsin?

The answer: not much, and it depends. Voters in spring elections in Wisconsin are demographically older and less diverse, and far smaller than presidential voter turnout in November elections. And who can honestly say they know what the political environment will be in 2020? How will Wisconsin voters feel about Donald Trump, the economy, and the direction of the country 18 months from now?

There is, however, one thing that could happen again under fairly normal political circumstances. If Wisconsin is the competitive battleground state it’s capable of being, we may be in for another razor-thin election win for either side in 2020. Ten Wisconsin elections over the last 19 years illustrate this point. If the 2020 elections are not morphing into a blue wave or red wave election, chances are good that we could be heading for another classic, tight contest between the two major parties. Here’s a look at 10 statewide Wisconsin elections over the last 19 years and a brief discussion of the factors that drove the final outcome.

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Competitive environment produces close elections: If you look closely at these 10 elections, nine took place during a political cycle that didn’t favor one party over the other to any significant degree. As a general rule, a neutral political environment is a prerequisite for producing close elections in the Badger State. With one exception, in the 2006 Van Hollen vs. Falk race for attorney general, the remaining nine elections took place during election cycles that started and/or ended in a political environment that could have produced a winner from either side.

That’s why there is no major statewide election on this list that took place during blue or red wave election years. For example, in 2006 — minus the attorney general race between Van Hollen and Falk, and 2008, Democrats ran the table on Republicans and seized total control of state government in Wisconsin over two election cycles. In 2010 and 2014, Republicans rode two GOP wave elections and locked in control of state government for eight years. Wave election years don’t produce close election results; they generally shift power from one side to the other.

Two elections on this list deserve special mention. The 2006 election cycle strongly favored Democrats up and down the ticket. J.B. Van Hollen’s GOP win over former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk was possible due, in part, to a very messy primary election between incumbent Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and Dane County Executive Falk. Minus the divisive primary, it may have been very difficult for Van Hollen to prevail in that blue wave election year. The 2018 election cycle was good for Democrats at the top of the ticket in Wisconsin, but ultimately the wave didn’t arrive in our state. The Evers and Kaul victories were exceptionally close, and the GOP held all congressional and legislative seats down the ballot.

Third parties can and do matter: Wisconsin is a state where third-party candidates can make a difference in a competitive election cycle. Of the 10 close elections on this list, six were impacted one way or another by significant third-party candidates. In 2000, it’s quite possible that Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy kept the presidential race incredibly close in Wisconsin. Two years later, in the gubernatorial election between Jim Doyle and incumbent Gov. Scott McCallum, it’s conceivable that Ed Thompson’s Libertarian challenge kept acting Gov. Scott McCallum from being elected to a four-year term. And a credible case can be made that the 2016 presidential election and 2018 elections for governor and attorney general may have turned out differently if not for a significant third-party influence.

As we get closer to the presidential election in 2020, pay close attention to third-party candidates. If the 2020 political environment is highly competitive in Wisconsin, a strong third-party candidate could be a real factor in the final outcome.

Democrats have a slight edge in close elections: From this list of 10 close elections since 2000, the Democrats have prevailed in six and the Republicans in four. I’ve included the two state Supreme Court elections from 2011 and 2019 on the list of GOP wins. Even though Supreme Court elections are technically nonpartisan, these races have become increasingly partisan, and the two political parties provide the staff and other political infrastructure to run these campaigns. Even with a slight 6-4 edge from this list, it’s clear that neither party has a distinct advantage when it comes to close election outcomes in Wisconsin.

Here’s what we know today: Wisconsin will be one of the most competitive and contested states in the 2020 presidential election if we have a competitive environment next year. The Democrats will hold their national convention in Milwaukee this summer, and Democratic presidential candidates have already visited Wisconsin several times. It’s possible we may have to stay up late on election night for final results again.

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

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