Post-Election: Sweet, with Extra Bitters

Overall, last night was a great night to be a Republican. At the national level the GOP took control of the Senate with at least 3 more seats than was needed. Joni Ernst will be a great voice for our friends across the river in Iowa and an excellent new face for the Republican Senate. Dems for governor in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois lost to their GOP rivals (in Illinois, incumbent Pat Quinn lost in a huge upset).

The forces of big government unions in many of these races were defeated by a grassroots upswell, most notably here in Wisconsin. Positive, results oriented campaigns mostly won the night, but not all the results were favorable. Here’s a rundown of Wisconsin’s election night results that are worthy of note, starting with one that inspired the title.

Secretary of State

One of the night’s greater upsets was in the race for Secretary of State. Republican Julian Bradley, who ran a tireless and respectable campaign for Secretary of State against Doug La Follette, held on to a solid lead most of the night until a trickle of results from Milwaukee County turned into an avalanche, compressing Walker’s margin of victory to 6 and crushing Bradley’s.

The reason for Bradley’s loss could be one of a couple things. Certainly the collective four percent taken by the Libertarian and Constitution Party candidates, which likely came mainly from voters who would otherwise have voted Republican, was nearly equal to Bradley’s margin of loss of about 88,000 votes.

Also, there was a predictable but marked falloff between people who voted for Scott Walker and those who voted for Julian Bradley. 185,613 Walker voters did not vote for Bradley – had half of them voted for both Walker and Bradley, Bradley would’ve narrowly won.

What difference does it make who won the Secretary of State’s office, someone who hasn’t been paying attention to the race might ask (probably the attitude of Milwaukee’s vaunted conservative talk radio, who gave Bradley the cold shoulder until the last day).

An early perusal of Facebook comments and tweets post-election tells you why the race mattered. After 10 months of campaigning, Bradley is now a statewide name who in the end earned the votes of 1,072,798 people. Throughout the campaign he also earned the admiration – even adoration – of the GOP grassroots around the state. Bradley’s race mattered because he inspired and energized Republicans from Racine to River Falls.

That’s why sentiments of shock at the loss abound on social media. But even more prevalent are statements of he’ll be back. The hopes of many Republicans around the state are thoroughly intertwined with Bradley’s continued involvement in the party.

I mentioned the race was an upset not because Bradley lost but because he came so damn close to winning. Bradley was always considered a longshot, but his million-plus vote total, resulting in a painfully close election, was the real upset. The state’s conservative establishment failed to see the value of Bradley and the need to extend the Scott Walker coattails to boost Bradley until it was much too late, which was the biggest lost opportunity for the GOP Tuesday night.

3rd Congressional District

Tony Kurtz mounted the most competitive challenge for a Wisconsin Congressional seat. Considering several factors, Kurtz made a respectable showing against the 18-year incumbent Ron Kind for the 3rd CD for several reasons:

  • First, the other Congressional races in Wisconsin were decided by 63-37, 68-32, 70-27, 70-30, 57-41, 59-39, and 65-35. That makes Kurtz’ 43 percent the closest Congressional challenge in the state.
  • When compared to the guy who gave Kind the strongest challenge, Kurtz only experienced a 3.5 percent falloff from the vote total of Sen. Dan Kapanke, who scored 46.5 percent in 2010, back before the district was re-drawn to be considerably more favorable to the Democrats. Kapanke also had access to more than 3 times as much money as Kurtz, over a million dollars.
  • Kurtz also raised more money, over $300,000, than any other Kind challenger who wasn’t already elected to something, and he did so primarily in just the last few months of the campaign. Not a single cent of outside money was spent on the general election race for either side.
  • Kurtz performed considerably better than nearly any other challenger with the exception of Kapanke in nearly every ward throughout the district, even keeping pace with Kapanke’s numbers in many wards.

For Kind, the win sets up the 18-year Congressman for the 2016 run against Senator Ron Johnson that almost everybody thinks is inevitable. Kind likes to nurture a reputation as a pragmatic moderate, claims to be a budget hawk, and continually touts his roots in Wisconsin and his love of the Packers. Along with his $1.6 million warchest, Kind has some significant reasons to be optimistic about a run for Senate.

Knocking off Kind now would’ve averted a difficult 2016 campaign for Sen. Johnson, so Kurtz’s loss, while not a shock, is another missed opportunity for the GOP.

Kurtz, however, ended his speech to supporters after the results were in with, “Oh, one more thing. Those yard signs? Please keep them.” That statement was met with uproarious cheering and applause by a packed house in La Crosse.

96th Assembly

I wrote about the attempt by Democrats to once again topple Lee Nerison and postulated that Pete Flesch might mount a strong challenge with the wind at his back of a nasty strain of negative mailers from Madison Democrats.

I was wrong. Voters resoundingly rejected that kind of politics; Nerison in the end trounced Flesch with 59 percent of the vote, proving once again that Democratic efforts to knock him off are a waste of money. Nerison’s win was a triumph for old fashioned grassroots politics.

17th Senate

Republican assemblyman Howard Marklein defeated carpetbagger Pat Bomhack last night, and by a wider margin than many people saw coming.

I took a strong interest in this race when the state Democratic Party stepped on local Democrat candidate Ernie Wittwer and inserted Bomhack, who had just recently moved to the area, as their favored candidate. That infuriated the progressive grassroots and Wittwer supporters. It appears the state party’s meddling backfired; the Dem rank-and-file never backed Bomhack, he never got the traction or name ID, and Wittwer through the end of the campaign stoked the resentment.

This failure in a district the Democrats should’ve been able to win should cost Senate minority leader Chris Larson his leadership role. Update: the rumor is that Jennifer Shilling (potential 2016 candidate for 3rd District congress) will run against Chris Larson for the minority leader spot)

Other races to note:

In AD 94, Democrat Steve Doyle unfortunately gets another two-year term in Mike Huebsch’s former seat. Doyle beat back a challenge from Republican schoolteacher Tracie Happel by taking 54 percent of the vote. Doyle relentlessly pounded his message of bipartisan cooperation throughout the campaign, perhaps necesssary because of the district’s slight-red hue; Walker took 52.5 percent of the vote here. The 94th was an opportunity for the GOP but state party decision makers allocated resources elsewhere.

In AD 88, John Macco won with 56 percent of the vote. Macco made a strong challenge for the State Senate in 2012, and this time around his efforts are validated. Macco is a smart, strong leader who will be a great asset to the Assembly.

In AD 81, former Baraboo schoolteacher David Considine edged out Republican Ashton Kirsch with 54 percent of the vote. Considine has a questionable record, but it never came under scrutiny from the media. Kirsch ran a good campaign but was overwhelmed by the district’s blue tilt in the end; another possible pickup opportunity for the GOP that didn’t come to fruition.

In AD 75, Romaine Quinn took out incumbent Democrat Stephen Smith. Quinn, the former one-term mayor of Rice Lake, is a young up-and-coming leader who easily dispatched his opponent 55-45. The district leans conservative and Smith is not well-liked, but Quinn nonetheless ran a good campaign and deserved the victory.

In AD 70, another Republican knocked off a Democratic incumbent; Nancy VanderMeer defeated Amy Sue Vruwink 53-47. Many out in these parts saw it coming; in 2012, a great year for Democrats, VanderMeer lost by just 150 or so votes. A commonsense business owner, VanderMeer will be an excellent voice for her slightly red district.

In AD 68, Kathy Bernier held off a strong challenge from Democrat Jeff Peck, winning 53-47. Many people saw this race as a real nail-biter, and without a strong Republican tide it might’ve been, but Bernier will continue in Madison for at least another term.

In AD 54, weirdo Dem Gordon Hintz barely held on with 51 percent of the vote. Hintz is an embarrassment to the Democrats, who would benefit by him not being in their caucus. This turned out to be another opportunity for the GOP that was lost; maybe in 2016 the GOP can do better.

In AD 51, Republican Todd Novak is hanging on to a 59 vote lead over Democrat Dick Cates. A libertarian in the race ciphoned off 1,177 votes (no doubt mostly from Novak). This is the seat being vacated by senator-elect Howard Marklein, and it’s another possible GOP win in a rather blue area.

In AD 50, Republican Ed Brooks trounced Democrat Chris Miller, a retired Lutheran pastor. The 58-42 margin is a little surprising because the district leans to the left and Miller is widely respected, but nonetheless it’s another GOP win in a region that includes AD 51 and SD 17 that’s no longer very favorable for Republican candidates.

In SD 41, progressive grassroots Democrat Kathleen Vinehout pulled it out over Plum City farmer Mel Pittman, who led her most of the night until a pile of votes was counted in Eau Claire. Vinehout won with 52 percent in the end, a much closer margin than anyone saw coming. Pittman would’ve made an excellent senator for that district.

In SD 9, Devin LeMahieu ran over Democrat Martha Laning, who entered the race even before incumbent Joe Liebham left to run for Congress, which is the last time I check in on that district. The district isn’t inherently conservative but Leibham and now LeMahieu, a business owner and county board supervisor, have jobbed their Democrat opponents for years now.


Oh, and Scott Walker and Brad Schimel also won by much wider margins than many politicos saw coming – along with scores of new Republican voices around the country.

With a few exceptions, it was a great night be a Republican.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.