GOP sees omens of a Dem wave in Wisconsin

GOP sees omens of a Dem wave in Wisconsin
© Courtesy of Patty Schachtner

A surprise loss in a special statehouse election Tuesday night in Wisconsin has set off a new round of alarm among Republicans worried that they could face a Democratic wave in this year’s midterm elections. 

Democrat Patty Schachtner defeated Republican Adam Jarchow by about 10 points in Wisconsin’s 10th Senate District, a seat that had been under GOP control since 2001. President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg on Mueller report: 'Politically, I'm not sure it will change much' Sarah Sanders addresses false statements detailed in Mueller report: 'A slip of the tongue' Trump to visit Japan in May to meet with Abe, new emperor MORE carried the district by 17 points in the 2016 election.

The state Senate election in Wisconsin is another damning data point for Republicans. 

“If Republicans are losing districts like this, they should be in complete panic mode about the tsunami heading their way,” said Trygve Olson, a national Republican strategist who is from Wisconsin’s 10th District.

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The party in power historically loses seats in off-year election cycles. Making matters worse for Republicans, Democrats hold a double-digit lead in the generic House ballot, and Trump’s historically low approval rating for a first-term president is expected to be a drag on the party.

The Wisconsin race was just the latest dispiriting result for Republicans ahead of the midterms. Democrats won a shocking Senate special election in Alabama last month and flipped nearly three-dozen statehouse seats in the last year.

Many GOP lawmakers are retiring from Congress rather than seeking reelection, and several prominent Republicans have passed on competitive Senate races in recent days.

The Cook Political Report now lists four Republican-held House seats as leaning Democratic in the fall. No seats held by Democrats are labeled as GOP-leaning.

“I’m not advising my clients to panic, but if it’s a choice between panic and complacency, I suggest panic,” said veteran GOP strategist Curt Anderson. “Every Republican candidate should approach this election as if we start 5 points behind.”

The Wisconsin election was eye-opening for Republican leaders.

“Typically, we’ve held this seat, and we lost this seat last night, so yeah … I think we should pay attention,” said Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday Paul Ryan joins University of Notre Dame faculty MORE (R-Wis.).

The 10th District — which includes a Twin Cities suburb that is one of the most affluent areas in the state — has long been a GOP stronghold. Republicans worry that the upset there is further evidence of a shift by suburban women and affluent, college-educated white voters toward the Democrats.

The last time the 10th District flipped unexpectedly was 1990, when a Republican won the seat. That shift preceded a change toward a more red-leaning Wisconsin that created the conditions for Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker (R) and former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusMueller report shows how Trump aides sought to protect him and themselves Mueller: For months, Sessions carried a resignation letter whenever he visited White House Trump feared Mueller's appointment: 'This is the end of my Presidency' MORE to flourish.

Olson says the Democratic victory on Tuesday night could signal that kind of dramatic realignment again, this time in favor of Democrats.

Recognizing the significance of the loss, Walker and his team switched into action.

“Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin,” Walker said in a series of tweets, in which he implored Republicans to stay focused on their economic message.

Walker’s political team met Wednesday to discuss data and strategy. They’re confident that the state GOP apparatus, coupled with the governor’s fundraising ability, will be strong enough to beat back 2018 headwinds at home.

“We don’t see a straight line between last night’s results and November, just warning signs we take seriously,” said one Wisconsin Republican operative. “It’s not a sky-is-falling moment, it’s a ready-the-warplanes-and-take-flight moment.”

But Republicans are facing those same warning signs all over the map.

National GOP leaders met at the Salamander Resort in Virginia over the weekend to discuss the 2018 campaign.

Sources familiar with the meeting say leaders left the resort acknowledging they would lose House seats in November.

Still, many were hopeful that economic growth and the tax cuts that haven’t yet made their way to voters’ paychecks will boost the party between now and Election Day.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Overnight Energy: Wheeler vows to keep funds for Great Lakes cleanup | Inslee presses Trump on climate in House testimony | Dems seek more funds for Interior watchdog Inslee presses Trump on climate change in House testimony MORE (Wash.), the fourth-ranking Republican in leadership, said the discussion at the retreat reinforced how important it will be for Republicans to “win hearts and minds on the tax package.”

“People in this country need to realize what is driving economic growth and job creation and opportunity,” she said.

Democrats need to flip 24 seats to gain control of the House.

McMorris Rodgers told The Hill she believes Republicans would maintain their majority in the House through 2018. Other GOP observers claimed to hold that same sense of cautious optimism.

The Hill interviewed more than a half-dozen Republican strategists and political operatives for this story. Most argued that the bleak outlook portrayed by the media is being overplayed.

Trump’s approval rating is the worst for any first-term president and well below the 46-percent mark that strategists historically use to gauge down-ballot impact.

But Michael Steel, a former spokesman and strategist for former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTrump appears alongside Ocasio-Cortez on Time 100 list Resurrecting deliberative bodies Trump's decision on health care law puts spotlight on Mulvaney MORE (R-Ohio), argued that Republicans won the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2016 even while a majority of voters viewed Trump negatively, underscoring the volatility of the electorate and the irrelevance of conventional wisdom in the age of Trump.

“Trump has always had an identity that is distinct from the Republican Party as a whole. That’s why Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senator wears shirt honoring Otto Warmbier at Korean DMZ On The Money: Conservatives rally behind Moore for Fed | White House interviewing other candidates | Trump, Dems spar on Tax Day | Budget watchdogs bemoan 'debt denialism' The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday MORE [R-Ohio] and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFreedom to Compete Act would benefit many American workers Booker, Harris have missed most Senate votes Dems say attorney general undermined credibility with Trump talking point MORE [R-Fla.] were able to run ahead of him in 2016,” Steel said. “There’s no reason to think that couldn’t happen again.”

Republicans acknowledge that the retirements are an issue, since open seats are far more difficult to defend than those with incumbents.

But they don’t believe the retirements are an indicator from lawmakers that those Republicans are giving up in the face of impossible odds. Rather, they say the bulk of retirements are from term-limited committee leaders who have no interest in rejoining the rank-and-file.

“Their tenure is up, so they’re leaving,” said GOP pollster David Winston. “There are some that are looking at the complicated political environment and deciding they don’t want to deal with it, but for others, there’s no appeal to going back to being a backbencher, although it’s true that having more open seats makes it a more challenging situation.”

And Republicans say there is plenty of time to turn things around.

The RNC is setting fundraising records even as the Democratic National Committee is finding its legs under new leadership and continues to struggle to raise money.

Meanwhile, outside groups aligned with Ryan are hauling in tens of millions of dollars and have set up offices in dozens of districts where vulnerable Republicans are seeking reelection.

“No doubt some of these lawmakers are seeing these statehouse and special election results and scurrying like animals reacting before an earthquake. The potential for a wave election is very real,” said Doug Heye, a former RNC official and GOP strategist. “The difference is we’re talking about it in January and have 11 months to deal with it, whereas in the past it didn’t become apparent until much later.”

Scott Wong contributed.