How The GOP Could Defeat Baldwin in 2018

Six years go by so fast! Elected in 2012 over Tommy Thompson, Sen. Tammy Baldwin is up for re-election in 2018. But who will face her, and where does a betting man put his money?

Perhaps the biggest question is who will emerge to challenge Baldwin. There is plenty of GOP talent in the state, from members of Congress to the state legislature to the private sector. If Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is interested, she would likely have the support of the southeastern Wisconsin talk radio infrastructure (which has been greatly weakened after WTMJ threw in the towel on their conservative talk format).

Another potential challenger includes Eric Hovde, the very, very rich (to paraphrase Trump) hedge fund manager or whatever he is who made a good run in the 2012 Republican primary. One also has to think people with high perches in the legislature like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, or some other ambitious legislator has at least entertained the idea of running.

The most often-discussed challenger, and perhaps early frontrunner to face Baldwin, is Rep. Sean Duffy of the 7th District, which covers northern Wisconsin writ large. Duffy is young (age 45), charismatic, and can easily appeal to both the rural voters who found his literal lumberjack campaigning a refreshing change from stale, sterile politics-as-usual, and the critical suburban voters of the Fox River Valley and the WOW counties ringing Milwaukee. It’s just impossible not to like Duffy – and he’s missing no opportunity to raise his profile such as by giving commentary on Fox News.

Kleefisch would also be formidable. She has a statewide office, she’s been expanding her outreach, she has strong support in critical southeast Wisconsin, and most of all – she’s incredibly likable, genuine, sharp, and steeped for years in the issues at the forefront of Wisconsin voters. A Kleefisch versus Duffy contest would be a tough decision that might come down to a pure political calculus.

That calculus is this: Duffy was a strong Trump supporter from the very beginning. This turned out to be genius; Duffy’s district swung heavily for Trump in both the primary and general elections, and newfound GOP voters in rural areas could prove crucial.

Trump won Sean Duffy’s district, the 7th, in the GOP primary
Trump won the vast majority of counties in Duffy’s district in the general election

In addition, Politico cited rural Wisconsin (a descriptor fitting of Duffy’s district) as crucial to Trump winning Wisconsin:

Though he underperformed in the suburban WOW counties, turnout in the state’s two Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee County and Madison’s Dane County was smaller than in 2012 — and dramatically smaller in Milwaukee County than four years earlier. Trump also blew up Wisconsin’s 2012 map, winning 63 percent in rural areas, which made up a little over a quarter of the vote, and outpacing Romney by 10 points in those areas.

Trump won Duffy’s district handily. He also won Democrat Ron Kind’s 3rd District. If the Trump trend holds, Duffy would enter the race with a decided advantage among rural voters – not just because of Trump, but because of the rural appeal Duffy has maintained since voters first sent him to Congress to replace retiring lefty Dave Obey in 2010.

Duffy has handily won re-election ever since.

In addition to winning Wisconsin overall, Trump won the all-important Fox Valley by a considerable margin. Further, a Duffy candidacy for Senate – should he emerge from a potential primary – would certainly be embraced by voters in the WOW counties, among the deepest-red counties in the country.

If Trump a) Doesn’t screw up his first term and b) Returns the favor and offers his support for Duffy in rural, blue-collar areas of the state, that could make all the difference in retaining those voters for the GOP and unseating Baldwin in 2018.

This prognostication admittedly overlooks the potential of a Kleefisch, Hovde, or other candidacy – but the new reality that rural, outstate Wisconsin voters who once kept uber-lefty Dave Obey in office for 143 years are now a potential Republican voting bloc must be considered when weighing someone like Duffy against a candidate from the conservative bunker in southeast Wisconsin.

Perhaps the biggest threat to a GOP victory in 2018 is a brutal, costly primary like the one that left Tommy Thompson almost broke as he went on to face Baldwin in 2012. The GOP intelligentsia would be wise to consider the new map and coalesce around one and only one candidate in 2018.

Baldwin’s race is emblematic of the challenge facing Senate Democrats in 2018. While the GOP was on the offensive in 2016 thanks to the GOP wave in 2010, the tables will be turned in 2018. Of 33 Senate seats up for re-election in 2018, 25 are currently held by Democrats.

As with Wisconsin, many of those contests will take place in states that Trump won – some overwhelmingly. Townhall summarizes (see below for my own synopsis):

Indiana: Democrat Joe Donnely is up for re-election. Many analysts said Donnely lucked out with an easy win when former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) was primaried and a weaker GOP candidate ran against him in the general election. Donnely probably won’t have that luxury next go-around. Indiana just elected Rep. Todd Young (R) by a ten-point margin.

Montana: Democrat Jon Tester is up for re-election. He knows a thing or two about running races. He lead the 2016 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He will need that experience fighting for his job in Montana, a state that voted for Trump by a 21-point margin. However, Montana has a penchant for electing Democrats statewide. While voting for Trump, Montana voters also chose to re-elect Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock.

Florida: Democrat Bill Nelson has run many races in the Sunshine State and now he’s asking voters in Florida again to send him to D.C. He’s a known entity there, holding office since 1972. However, Florida did just elect a Republican president and overwhelmingly voted for Republican Marco Rubio by an almost 8-point margin over Rep. Patrick Murphy. Rubio performed strongly in Latino districts that typically vote Democrat. A lot of candidate options are on the table for the GOP: Rep. David Jolly, Rep. Ron DeSantis, or outgoing Gov. Rick Scott. Judging how Rubio performed against Murphy, Florida GOP should consider another Latino – as that voting base shows stronger preferences for fellow Latinos, even when the candidate is a Republican.

Missouri: Democrat Claire McCaskill is up for re-election again. Her continual hold on the seat is a testament to how many times the state GOP has screwed the pooch. Rep. Todd Akin was polling ahead of her until his “legitimate rape” comments finally burned his chances in 2012. Missouri is a red state. Voters there chose Trump by 19 points, re-elected Sen. Roy Blunt by 3 points, and flipped their governors’ seat by electing Republican Eric Greitens by almost six points. McCaskill should be done if the Missouri GOP plays their cards right.

Ohio: Democrat Sherrod Brown has done well in Ohio. He’s held office there for over 20 years and won election to the Senate twice. However, if there is a year to oust him from power, the time is now. Ohio pivoted strongly to the GOP in the 2016 election. Trump won the largest margin in Ohio than any Republican in the past five elections. Republican Sen. Rob Portman won his re-election by an astounding 21-point margin. The Rust Belt looks to be turning red and it could spell the end for Sen. Brown.

North Dakota: It’s a little perplexing how Sen. Heidi Heitkamp even got elected in North Dakota. It surely is a testament to the Republicans’ bad showing in 2012. Nonetheless, the state has been returning to its blood-red roots. Voters there went for Trump by 36 points and voted for Sen. Hoeven by a 68-point margin… You read that correctly. North Dakota voters preferred Republican Hoeven 78.6 to 17 against the Democrat challenger.

Wisconsin: Democrat Tammy Baldwin is up for re-election. No state shocked the country more than Wisconsin. It hadn’t gone for a Republican since Reagan in 1984. Sen. Ron Johnson (R) came back from the dead to win re-election against Russ Feingold. Johnson clawed his way from a double-digit deficit in the polls to a 3-point victory on Election Day. Gov. Scott Walker also has an impeccable operation in the Badger State – winning election three times in a row despite a union onslaught. This will be an interesting stat to watch.

West Virginia: Once a Democrat stronghold, West Virginia is now ruby-red. Coal country is Trump friendly and voters in this state voted for the president-elect by a 42-point margin. Their legislature and majority of their House delegation has gone Republican. However, it will be quite difficult to oust Sen. Joe Manchin. West Virginia residents still appreciate their blue-dogs. Despite choosing Trump, they voted to elect Democrat Jim Justice to the governor’s mansion by a wide margin. Sen. Manchin is perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. This seat may not go red until he retires, but anything is possible when his national party brand is as hated as it is in the Mountain State.

Pennsylvania: This is last of the three major Rust Belt States in play in 2018. Sen. Bob Casey has been involved in Pennsylvania politics for quite a long time. It’s actually a family affair- his father held office before him. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey proved all the polls wrong by winning against his Democrat challenger in 2016. On top of that, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the Keystone State since 1988. This is a light-blue state that may be turning red with the Rust Belts.

Let me summarize. Democrats are up for re-election in the following states that Trump won bigly:

  • Montana (Sen. Jon Tester) Trump +21%
  • Missouri (Sen. Claire McCaskill) Trump +19%
  • North Dakota (Sen. Heidi Heitkamp) Trump +36%
  • West Virginia (Sen. Joe Manchin) Trump +42%

Flipping those four states alone to the GOP while holding its own ground would decimate the Senate Democrat caucus. If the Trump coalition holds, wins in the remaining five states Townhall lists are possible – if Trump plays ball. The Republicans currently hold 51 seats – flipping nine would…well, do the math.

And that’s just nine out of the 25 seats Democrats are defending in the next cycle. The GOP has to avoid running crazy candidates like they did in some races in 2012. As is the case in Wisconsin, the party should coalesce around the strongest candidates in each state, with an eye to the new populist mantle forged by Trump.

That shouldn’t be a problem considering Republican candidates have routed Democrats down-ticket in the 2010, 2014, and 2016 elections, leaving the Dems with an extremely thin bench and the Republican ranks teeming with talent.

If Trump’s tenure as president is a success, it’s very possible – I daresay likely – the Republicans could gain a filibuster-proof majority in 2018. Most importantly for Wisconsin, the Badger State could oust one of the farthest-left Senators currently in the Senate and replace her with a commonsense, well-liked, and steadfast conservative.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.
  • Rulz

    Won’t be THAT easy to flip the Senate seats. Democrats will have incumbent advantage and Trump will need to turn economy around (it may get worse before it gets better) by then. Manchin, for one, is pretty well liked in West Virginia and votes more or less like a West Virginian.

    Would like to see solid GOP candidates like Ann Wagner, Rebecca Kleefisch, Jack Darylmpe run for office.

  • OrangeWhip X3

    Mark my words … Sean Duffy will be our senator come 2018. I’m sure he’s already preparing for the race as he’s been raising his profile lately. I honestly don’t see anybody in the current GOP class that would be able to beat him in the primary, unless Walker were to run, which I doubt he will. The WI GOP is a well-oiled machine and I believe it will coalesce around Duffy.

    You can take Trump out of the equation entirely. WI Dems don’t show up during the midterms. This is evident by Walker’s victories as well as the ouster of the otherwise popular Feingold in 2010. Baldwin, like her predecessor, hasn’t much to show for her time in the senate. Duffy will make mincemeat of her. I just hope that the 7th stays red when Duffy jumps ship.

    • ZZZ

      But Kleefisch is also a good option…

      • Rick Weier

        ANYONE will be way better than Baldwin.