MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Want to know just how important Wisconsin is in the midterm election? Take a look at the political luminaries who visited over the past six days.
Sen. Kamala Harris on Sunday. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday. President Donald Trump on Wednesday. And, the biggest prize of all for Democrats, former President Barack Obama on Friday.
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“The consequences of anyone sitting out of this election are profound,” Obama told a crowd of about 3,500 people in a north Milwaukee high school auditorium Friday. “The character of our country is on the ballot.”
With a tight contest for Speaker Paul Ryan’s open congressional seat, a competitive Senate race and a battle for governor that is about as close as it can get, the state that slipped through Democrats’ hands in the 2016 presidential election is getting obsessive attention from both parties in the run-up to Election Day.
“This is an incredibly important battleground state,” said Mike Tate, a Democratic strategist and former Wisconsin state party chair. “It may end up being one of the closest governor’s races in the country.”
The marquee race features Scott Walker, beloved by Republicans nationally, who is attempting to win his third term as governor amid signs that the independents who made all the difference to his victories in the past are now moving away from him.
Schools Superintendent Tony Evers holds a marginal lead in recent polls, but he needs a big turnout from Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee, where many voters stayed home in 2016.
“Only a fool thinks that race isn’t a coin flip,” Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said of the Walker-Evers contest.
And it’s a toss-up that has major implications for both parties. Whoever wins the governor’s race will head up the 2020 round of redistricting and get a key role in shaping the makeup of the state’s congressional map. For Democrats, knocking out a longtime nemesis like Walker would offer a significant morale boost both here and nationally, and lay the groundwork for winning back the state in the 2020 presidential election.
Likewise, if Walker can hold on for yet another term, Republicans would be emboldened — a veteran warrior for conservative values and against organized labor will have beaten back a supposed blue wave.
“We have a governor going for a third-term reelection. In the big scheme of things, in states that are losing their Republican governor and switching Democrat, it’s a big thing,” said Scholz, a former Wisconsin Republican Party executive director. “Walker, who is a bright star, who has been a good governor — certainly well-heeled — the Republican Party nationally needs people like this. They don’t want to lose him.”
With Wisconsin’s electorate so evenly split, partisan energy is now shifting to rigorous GOTV campaigns. Both parties are trotting out their most visible surrogates and sinking resources into a turnout operation designed to energize their base and to draw a small group of independent voters who could end up tilting the election.
Wisconsin got a vivid reminder of the impact of get out the vote efforts on Election Day 2016, when the state posted its worst voter turnout in 16 years, which included depressed numbers in Milwaukee. Trump carried the state by just 27,000 voters.
By contrast, Wisconsin voters turned out in big numbers in 2008, when Obama won his first election by 14 percentage points.
It’s no wonder then that Democrats dispatched Obama to Milwaukee today, as the party hopes the former president can do what Hillary Clinton was unable to do in 2016: drive the party’s base to the polls.
Obama quickly riled up the auditorium, with the crowd jumping to its feet, cheering and calling out to him in between remarks: “Run again!”
“We need you back, Obama!” and “You’re our president!”
Next week, former Vice President Joe Biden will headline rallies in Milwaukee and Madison, the state’s two largest cities and Democratic strongholds.
“It’s a turnout issue,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said of the midterm election. Visits from Obama and Bernie Sanders animate Democrats, he said, offering a useful boost in the homestretch. “We do elect Republicans statewide, but we tend to be a little more blue — if people get out to vote. So for us, it really is a big get out the vote effort.”
Earlier this week, Sanders rallied voters in Milwaukee for Evers. But he also brought his message of economic populism to a union hall here in Kenosha, where a fierce battle over Ryan’s soon-to-be vacant House seat is underway between Democrat Randy “Ironstache” Bryce and Republican Bryan Steil.
Sanders, who carried Wisconsin over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, hung his argument on Trump’s tax and health care policies, telling the room that he understood why some Wisconsin residents voted for Trump, but said they were sold a bill of goods.
“I know that Donald Trump won Wisconsin in 2016. But I wanna say this. I believe that Trump won this state and many other states because people did not understand then that this man is a pathological liar,” Sanders said. “Two years ago when he ran for president he told the people of Wisconsin, if elected president he was going to provide health care to everybody. Problem was, he lied.”
Helping combat the parade of Democratic superstars, the Republican Governors Association on Thursday launched a new TV ad targeting Evers on education, charging he supports bureaucrats over Wisconsin students.
It is his challenge to Walker that has drawn the most attention both inside and outside state borders. Walker faces voter fatigue as he seeks his third term, but he is an experienced hand at winning in Wisconsin, with two gubernatorial wins and a third in a recall election.
The governor’s long been better funded than Evers and has a solid ground operation in place.
“What cuts in Walker’s favor is the national economy is really strong,” said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist. “What hurts him is it’s very rare for a Wisconsin governor to be elected from the same party as the party that’s in the White House – hasn’t happened since 1990.”
Whether the star-studded surrogate lineup can translate into real votes for Democrats, remains to be seen.
This weekend, Democratic Governors Association director Jay Inslee will be behind yet another GOTV push in the state.
A roaring crowd who came out to see Trump in north-central Wisconsin, a Republican bastion, suggested GOP enthusiasm remains high as well.
As Trump touted tougher border security, supporters chanted, “Build the wall! Build the wall!”
Then the president got local, pointing out that he worked with Walker to lure Foxconn, a manufacturer that’s poised to bring in 13,000 jobs at the high end, though it has also drawn controversy after the state handed it lucrative tax breaks.
“He did something that I didn’t think would be happening in this country for a long time. I got him set up with an incredible company called Foxconn,” Trump said of his former presidential rival. “Ninety-nine percent of the people if they were governor could never have done that job — not only do the job, do it so well. It was almost 15,000 jobs. And much more important, there’s no plant like it anywhere in the United States. One of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.”
Trump brought Walker on stage as well as Leah Vukmir, who is attempting to unseat Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who’s held a consistent lead in the polls. As in other states, Wisconsin Democrats are focusing their messaging on health care and hitting hard on the issue of pre-existing conditions.
There’s evidence Republicans recognize the potency of the attack. A new Walker ad features his mom and her battle with cancer. In Wednesday night’s boisterous Trump rally, Walker took the stage and referenced his wife’s pre-existing condition: Type 1 Diabetes.
“Don’t believe the lies. Don’t believe the lies,” Walker said, Trump applauding beside him. “We will cover people with pre-existing conditions.”
On Friday, Obama took issue with that statement, saying Republicans have worked to repeal protections for pre-existing conditions but have now changed their tune in the run-up to the midterms. Obama specifically called out Walker, who has backed two plans that would curb pre-existing condition protections. Walker has said he would support new legislation offering such protections.
“Your governor has been running an ad, during election time saying he is going to protect pre-existing conditions when he is literally doing the opposite. That is some kind of gall. That is some kind of chutzpah. But let’s also call it what it is: It is a lie,” Obama said. “That brings us to a bigger question about this election … if you take one position then you should be held accountable for the position you take. You can’t pretend you didn’t take the position because it’s politically expedient. You can’t just lie about it.”
Walker responded promptly.
“@BarackObama got the national Politifact Lie of the Year for saying ‘if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.‘ It takes some kind of gall for him to come into Wisconsin and lie again about health care and about pre-existing conditions.“