‘Shot across the bow’: Virginia results forecast tough road for Gov. Evers next fall

MADISON, Wis. — A historic Republican gubernatorial win in Virginia on Tuesday could forecast a tough election for Wisconsin’s governor next fall.

It’s clearly “a shot across the bow,” former longtime Wisconsin Republican strategist Brandon Scholz said.

Virginia’s gubernatorial history since the early 2000s trends deeper blue then Wisconsin’s own. Four out of their last five governors dating back to 2002 (including incumbent Ralph Northam and just-defeated former governor Terry McAuliffe); Wisconsin has had two Republicans out of four governors since 2001.

Like Wisconsin, Virginia voted for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Unlike Wisconsin, Virginia remained blue in 2016; both states voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

“We always knew this was gonna be a tough election cycle,” chair for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, Ben Wikler, said. Historically, midterm elections at a national level aren’t easy for any party who lost the White House in a previous general election.

Now, with Virginia’s off-year election results flipping the state towards Republican Glenn Youngkin for governor, Wisconsin Republicans can taste a GOP gubernatorial victory in 2022 for themselves.

“When we think about last night and what it potentially foreshadows, we can look over a decade ago and see what happened in those same states in a similar scenario,” former Wisconsin GOP chairman Andrew Hitt explained.

He’s talking about 2009 and 2010, when Republican Chris Christie won blue New Jersey’s race by about four points and Republican Bob McDonnell similarly swept blue Virginia. The story of 2010 and the Tea Party wave is well known: U.S. House Republicans picked up more than 60 seats, and Wisconsin’s legislature and governor’s mansion both flipped red–staying that way for a decade before Gov. Tony Evers ousted Gov. Scott Walker by barely a percentage point in 2018.

Now, he points to President Donald Trump’s 2020 losses in historically Republican suburbs in Wisconsin–and Youngkin’s Virginia suburban gains on Tuesday–as a key for 2022.

“Those are temporary shifts,” he said. In 2020, Trump lost major ground to Biden in Milwaukee’s deeply red suburb counties of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington. “I think Virginia foreshadows that for us.”

The latest Marquette Law School poll, released Wednesday, had results similarly projecting a tough gubernatorial election for Gov. Evers next fall. It found 40% of registered voters polled said they would vote to reelect Gov. Evers, while 53% said they would vote for someone else and 6% didn’t know or wouldn’t say.

“I think you could call this a grumpy electorate,” Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette Law School poll, said.

For Wisconsin Democrats, school board recall failure a sign of hope

While Republican performances in last night’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey struck fear for Democrats across the nation looking into next year’s midterms, the attempted Mequon-Thiensville recall of four school board members that failed amid massive turnout Tuesday night was the real measuring stick for Democratic strategists in Wisconsin.

The recall attempt attracted national attention as a bellwether for race-based education concerns (although organizers cited a far wider array of concerns, including academic performance). That issue is spreading as a major political theme nationwide, under a battle cry against critical race theory (CRT) in schools. Most K-12 schools don’t teach the legal theory by definition, but Republicans have come to use the term when referring to many race or history-centered education theories.

“When extremism was on the ballot, it was defeated pretty soundly,” Wisconsin Democratic strategist Melissa Baldauff said. The former deputy chief of staff to Tony Evers said the recall results should be one of the most important in terms of calculating next year’s races. “People trust Gov Evers to do the right thing.”

Frontrunner GOP gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch championed the recall, which WisDems chair Ben Wikler said indicates an outcome next year anything but favorable. “Voters rejected that kind of radical politics in the Badger state, and not in a particularly Democratic-leaning portion of the state,” he pointed out.

But it was similar education issues and outcry against CRT in schools that likely cost McAuliffe the election, Scholz explained.

“Virginia’s governor made a big mistake on his education platform in suggesting that parents don’t have a role in their kids’ educations,” Scholz said. “That to me is probably one of the biggest mortal wounds he took in that campaign.”

Local versus national politics

It’s an old phrase, but it still applies: all politics are local, Scholz said.

It was Youngkin’s focus on issues that mattered to Virginians versus McAuliffe’s emphasis on national politics and Biden’s agenda that swung the pendulum in Youngkin’s favor, Republicans said.

“It’s really important to focus on kitchen table issues,” Hitt said. “Youngkin talked specifically to them about their life and how they were gonna make their lives better, whether it was school or taxes, bringing charter schools, getting rid of the grocery tax–he really brought it down to a personal level for them.”

“Even though it’s a statewide race for governor, you gotta take care of business at home,” Scholz said. Democrats can no longer win races like they did in 2020–by running against Trump. That didn’t work on Tuesday in Virginia or New Jersey, he said. Towards the end of the race, he noted, even McAuliffe pulled Biden imagery from his campaign.

But it’s a local focus on how Gov. Evers has worked for Wisconsin that Democrats say will be his winning message next fall.

“He ran in 2018 on education, roads, and healthcare,” Baldauff said. “That’s been his priority in office and it’s going to remain his priority in his second term in office.”

At the same time, they point to Biden’s national agenda–the Build Back Better Act–and what it will do for Wisconsinites at both a state and local level. Get that passed, and Democrats can rest easier in 2022. Ultimately, however, there’s no race in Wisconsin that would be easy for Democrats to begin with: their strategy, Wikler says, involves boots on the ground.

This weekend, that means kicking off their One Year to Win plan. They plan to organize, knock on doors, and phonebank in efforts to reach 100,000 voters through Saturday and Sunday. That’s twice as large as a goal as a similar kickoff in 2019.

“The number one lesson from, frankly, the last decade or two in Wisconsin politics is to never take a day off,” Wikler said. “The biggest mistake the Democrats could make would be to take anything for granted…Don’t mourn: organize.”