Ticket splitters: Some Wisconsin voters may cross party lines in this year’s elections

The intensity of feelings about Trump will likely be what drives some to the polls this fall
graphic of a red and blue pencil filling in a ballot

If you’re looking for an early clue on which legislative races to watch this fall, check out incumbents such as state Rep. Todd Novak.

The Dodgeville Republican won elections in 2014, 2016 and 2018 even as Democrats at the top of the ticket took the southwestern Wisconsin district in their races. And if he hopes to secure a fourth term in 2020, he’ll likely be going against the tide once again.

Still, it could be an even tougher swim for Novak considering what a uniquely polarizing figure President Donald Trump has been with Wisconsin voters. Across all of the polls the Marquette University Law School conducted in 2019, 46% of registered Wisconsin voters approved of his job performance, while 51% disapproved. A closer look at those numbers shows 44% of Wisconsin voters said they strongly disapproved of the president’s performance.

By comparison, four 2018 Marquette polls that asked about former Gov. Scott Walker’s job approval in a similar fashion found his split was 48-47. That included 36% who said they strongly disapproved of his performance.

The intensity of feelings about Trump will likely be what drives some to the polls this fall, so it could be a challenge to persuade such voters to cross party lines down the ballot.

For Novak, that means courting voters with an independent streak — and trying to stay out of the fray over national issues.

“If I don’t have to, I don’t talk national politics at all,” Novak says. About his constituents, he says, “If they know you and they like you and you’re not extreme, they’ll vote for you.”

Wisconsin’s reputation for ticket splitting has faded somewhat in the past decade as partisan identification has hardened here and nationally. The major party candidates for governor and U.S. Senate in 2010 and the presidency and U.S. Senate in 2012 had nearly identical shares of the final vote. And in 2016, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold received just 2,201 fewer votes than fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Still, there are pockets of the state where voters are still prone to ticket splitting with a candidate’s personal appeal often playing a role. Some cite that — along with a better campaign and superior resources — for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin winning reelection in 2018 with 55.4% of the vote even as fellow Democrat Tony Evers eked out only a 29,227-vote win over Walker for governor.

Those Baldwin-Walker voters are exactly the kind that lawmakers, such as Novak, need. And Novak is not the only one.

Only four members of the Assembly won in 2018 as the opposing party took the district at the top of the ticket in the governor’s race: Novak; fellow Republican Travis Tranel of Cuba City; incumbent Democrat Steve Doyle in Onalaska; and Democrat Robyn Vining, who won an open seat in the Milwaukee suburbs. Those lawmakers’ 2020 races for reelection will likely be high-priority targets by political operatives.

Add to the list the 23rd Assembly District in suburban Milwaukee. In her race for the White House, Clinton won the district even as GOP Rep. Jim Ott of Menomonee Falls secured another term. To political operatives, that split illustrated the GOP’s struggle to win over suburban voters under Trump.

On the flip side, Trump has done well in rural districts, including some that have traditionally favored Democrats.

He lost the 73th Assembly District in northern Wisconsin by just 11 votes while winning the neighboring 74th by 3 percentage points. Reps. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, and Beth Meyers, D-Bayfield, were unopposed in 2016 in those seats. They will be targets in 2020 as Republicans look to tap Trump’s popularity in rural areas.

Then there’s the state Senate, where Democrat Patty Schachtner won a special election in 2018 for a western Wisconsin seat that Trump won by 17 points in 2016, and the 30th District in the Green Bay area, where retiring Democrat Dave Hansen had traditionally outperformed others from his party on the ballot.

Doyle, who was first elected to the Assembly in a 2011 special election, says he has won crossover voters thanks to three decades on the La Crosse County Board that helped him build a reputation outside of party labels. He says his caucus knows him as “Mr. Outreach” for connecting with constituents.

“People know who I am,” Doyle says. “If I go to Menards to buy a tool, I come out an hour later after 10 people have collared me wanting to talk about things.”

JR Ross is the editor of WisPolitics.com.