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Democrats win big in Wisconsin special election, make big gains against GOP across the country

Narrowing margins of victory in several states are making Republicans nervous for the midterms.

Credit: MSNBC
Credit: MSNBC

Democrats at the state level made crucial gains in a number of special election contests on Tuesday night. In one district, they even managed to flip a long-held Republican seat.

Following her victory in Wisconsin over Republican state Rep. Adam Jarchow (Balsam Lake), newly elected state Sen. Patty Schachtner told AP statehouse reporters that she won by sticking to her message. “My message has always been be kind, be considerate and we need to help people when they’re down,” she said. “We just need to be kind to people who are less fortunate and just help.” Schachtner fills the 10th District seat vacated by Republican state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who took a job as Gov. Scott Walker’s agriculture secretary in November.

Wisconsin’s 10th District, which encompasses parts of Burnett, Polk, St. Croix, Pierce, and Dunn Counties, has been a Republican stronghold since 2001, when Harsdorf was first elected. In the 2016 election, President Trump swept the district by a margin of 16 points; Mitt Romney also won it in 2012, despite losing the state overall.

Schachtner told reporters on Tuesday that her victory could signal a bigger change afoot within both the state and the Democratic Party as a whole.

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“People sent a message tonight we don’t want to be negative any more. Change it up,” she said, referring to a slew of ad campaigns by outside groups — such as the conservative Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity — who had campaigned viciously for her rival.

Asked by AP statehouse reporter Scott Bauer if her upset was “a bad sign” for Republicans in the fall, she responded, “It certainly could be.”

Democrats’ 10th District win, while monumental, did not change the overall political landscape of the state: as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, Senate Republicans managed to retain an 18-14 majority, despite Schachtner’s win. But her victory is indicative of a growing movement across the country — a backlash of sorts in response to Trump’s presidency.

In Wisconsin and beyond, here are a few of the places Democrats made big gains on Tuesday evening.

Wisconsin, 10th Senate District

Winner: Democrat

Democrat Schachtner beat Republican state Rep. Jarchow (Balsam Lake) in a seat previously held by Republicans for the past 16 years. In October, the seat’s previous occupant, current Wisconsin agriculture secretary Sheila Harsdorf, won the district by a landslide 63 percent.

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“A change is coming!!!” Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Martha Laning wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday night, following Schachtner’s win.

Gov. Walker himself noted in a series of tweets on Tuesday and Wednesday that Schachtner’s win could spell trouble for state Republicans.

“Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin,” he wrote “Can’t presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin. …Can’t presume that voters know that we invested more actual dollars into schools than ever before.  …Can’t presume that voters know that we eliminated the State property tax to provide working families & seniors relief. Help us share the good news.”

Wisconsin, 58th Assembly District

Winner: Republican

Democratic candidate Dennis Degenhardt may have lost his race for Wisconsin State Assembly District 58 to Republican Rick Gundrum on Tuesday, but Democrats still made promising gains.

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District 58 has been solidly red for years; in 2014, Republican Bob Gannon walked away victorious with 51.3 percent of the overall vote. In 2016, Gannon was unopposed. His seat was vacated in October last year, after he died of natural causes.

In the 2016 presidential election, District 58 went for Trump, with only 28 percent voting for Hillary Clinton; however in Tuesday night’s special election, Degenhardt managed to win 43 percent of the overall vote — a huge shift that could be a sign of things to come.

“While we didn’t get the result we wanted, tonight’s results are a huge step forward for our district,” Degenhardt wrote in a Facebook post after the race was called.

In an interview with ThinkProgress on Wednesday, Degenhardt added that the exit numbers were promising.

“Forty-three percent for Democrats in Washington County…is huge. Most [Democrats] who run for the Assembly get around 30 percent. The projection from the party was that we over-performed by 18 percent,” he said. “People are upset about what Trump is saying. A lot of people want to get involved because they’re tired of the nonsense and the lies. …That backlash helped us get volunteers. I think that gave us a chance.”

Asked what kind of message Tuesday’s results sent to voters nationwide, he said, “A lot of people thanked me for running. The statement we need to get out to people is that we need people to run. Getting Democrats [in Republican districts] to do that is so hard because you beat your brains out and get 32 percent of the vote …But people need to know there are really good, viable Democratic candidates — [they] need to know there are options.”

As Decision Desk HQ reporter Aaron Booth tweeted, “The GOP held this seat 56.56%-43.37%. This is a 24.9% swing from the 2016 presidential margin. It is a 36.25% swing from the 2014 #WIGov margin. That’s certainly good news for the @WisDems.”

South Carolina, House District 99

Winner: Republican

Although Republican Nancy Mace was able to take the deep red South Carolina House District 99 on Tuesday, her rival, Democrat Cindy Boatwright, still managed to tip the scales enough to attract national attention.

“Early results show Mace garnered about 57 percent of the vote compared to Boatwright’s 43 percent, according to unofficial results,” the Post and Courier reported Tuesday. “On a county-level, Boatwright defeated Mace in Charleston County by a 687-634 tally, with more than 80 percent of precincts reporting.”

Those numbers have forced analysts to sit up and take notice. District 99, a longtime Republican stronghold that has traditionally gone to conservatives, voted 58-35 percent for Trump in 2016. Prior to that, residents voted 62-34 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. On Tuesday night, the district voted approximately 57-43 percent in favor of Mace, according to early tallies.

The margin of victory for Republicans is narrowing in an otherwise red district — from 23 to 13 percent since the 2016 presidential election. That could be a bad sign for conservatives across the state.

“A 13 point Dem swing in just over a year for a candidate with no money against a [Republican] with tons? Matches up with generic [Democrat v. Republican results] in most national polls showing tidal wave coming in 18,” former South Carolina House Democratic Caucus President Tyler Jones tweeted on Tuesday night.

Iowa, House District 6

Winner: Republican

Outspent and facing what Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price referred to as “ridiculously negative opposition,” Democrat Rita De Jong lost her bid for Iowa’s staunchly conservative House District 6 to Republican opponent Jacob Bossman by an 11-point margin on Tuesday night.

Democrats in the state consider the result a win nonetheless.

“She was outspent 10 to 1 in a district that Donald Trump won by 30 points last year,” Price said in a statement on Wednesday. “By all conventional political wisdom, we shouldn’t have had a shot, but 2018 is not a conventional year. Iowans are paying attention. They know what four, even two more years of full Republican control will do to our communities and they’ve had enough.”

In the 2016 presidential election, the district voted 64-31 percent in favor of Trump; Tuesday’s 56-44 percent outcome, in favor of Bossman, slashes that margin in half.

“[This was a] 20 point swing toward Democrats, despite over $100,000 being spent by Republicans to defend a deep red district,” grassroots advocacy group Indivisible Iowa tweeted on Tuesday evening. “If we carry that 20 point swing toward democrats into the 2018 midterm election, we could flip over 22 Iowa House seats!”

This article has been updated to add additional comments from Wisconsin 58th Assembly District candidate Dennis Degenhardt.