Will Wisconsin Give the GOP a Senate Supermajority in 2018?


Perhaps the biggest surprise on Election Night last year was Wisconsin.

Nobody — well, almost nobody (apologies to The National Pulse’s Steve Wagner who, after all, is a somebody) — expected Donald Trump to win Wisconsin, and even fewer people thought Republican Sen. Ron Johnson could win re-election, yet he did, shocking former Sen. Russ Feingold by more than three percentage points in a race that proved critical in maintaining the GOP Senate majority.

Wisconsin will again play a key role in 2018 as Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) runs for re-election. As we have covered previously, 2018 presents a very friendly field for Republicans. There are just two vulnerable Republican seats and more than a dozen vulnerable Democratic seats in 2018:

Republicans at Risk in 2018
Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)
Dean Heller (R-Nev.)
Democrats at Risk in 2018
Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.)
Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)
Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)
Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
Bob Casey, Jr. (D-Pa.)
Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)
Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)
Tim Kaine (D-Va.)
Angus King (I-Maine)
Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)
Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

This competitive advantage presents an incredible opportunity to increase the GOP Senate majority from 52 seats at present to 58, 59, or potentially even 60 seats, which would provide the Republicans with a filibuster-proof majority, allowing them to enact President Trump’s agenda without obstruction from “resisting” Senate Democrats.

And while it’s exciting to consider the legislative possibilities with a 60-seat supermajority, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Republicans achieve the net plus-8 Senate seats needed to get to 60 without defeating Sen. Baldwin.

This is truly a tipping-point race.

The good news, from a campaign standpoint, is that Baldwin is as radical as progressives come. She’s on the record in support of abortion up to the moment of birth (100 percent rating from NARAL). She opposes religious freedom rights and would seek to shut down and/or criminalize religious institutions with traditional values. She supports unfettered immigration from terrorism-sponsoring countries. She supports the Obamacare disaster. She supports Common Core and federalized education. She opposes school choice. She supports higher taxes and more spending.

In other words, she’s a check-the-box, totalitarian progressive Democrat.

So how winnable is this race?

Baldwin isn’t terribly popular. A Morning Consult poll conducted last year showed her with 43 percent approval and 37 percent disapproval among Wisconsin voters. And in 2012, a good year for the Democrats, Baldwin won by just five points in her Senate race against former Governor Tommy Thompson.

Wisconsin is also a state which voted to elect Governor Scott Walker three separate times, despite an avalanche of outside spending from progressive groups aimed at defeating him.

Additionally, conservatives should take solace in the fact that Sen. Johnson won his race by more than three points in a presidential election year. Presidential-year electorates typically swing more Democrat than midterm-year electorates, while the last two midterm elections have overwhelmingly favored Republicans. If this recent trend holds up, Wisconsin’s electorate may be ripe to support a strong conservative candidate who challenges Baldwin in 2018.

We spoke to Kevin Nicholson, a likely GOP candidate running for Baldwin’s seat. He thinks the race is “very winnable.”

Nicholson has a unique story — he was once president of the National College Democrats. He even gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2000. But as many young college students do after experiencing life outside the college bubble, Nicholson recognized the flaws in the Democratic Party platform and became a conservative. He joined the Marines in 2004 as a Captain and served two tours, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. When he returned home in 2009, he went to Harvard to get his Masters in Public Administration — “I have yet to find a greater cultural divide than the battlefield in Afghanistan and the classrooms at Harvard,” Nicholson quipped — and, simultaneously, to Dartmouth to get his Masters in Business Administration. After that, he enjoyed considerable success in the private sector.

Screenshot of Kevin Nicholson’s 2000 speech to the DNC via C-SPAN

In our meeting with Nicholson, he came across as a true conservative in every sense. He spoke articulately and passionately about economic issues and social issues alike — an important skill set that should benefit him immensely on the campaign trail should he choose to run.

We asked Nicholson which issues animated him and which issues were most important to Wisconsin voters. He gravitated toward concerns about the economy:

“People are worried,” Nicholson said. “We have enormous problems both economically and financially. Good jobs are becoming more and more scarce…. Are our kids going to have to leave Wisconsin to secure their economic future?”

Nicholson also criticized President Obama’s leadership in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing that the way we left Iraq was “absolutely irresponsible.”

On Common Core, Nicholson objected to the poor quality of the standards and argued for local control. “It’s all about outcomes,” Nicholson said. “If [Common Core] actually did improve outcomes, that would be great, but it doesn’t. The less federal government tentacles that go into K-12 education, the better.” Nicholson also stated he was a “big believer” in school choice.

Nicholson also discussed his conversion to becoming pro-life. He told a story about delivering an address, in his role as president of the National College Democrats, to the Democratic National Convention in 2000 and reading a line about protecting abortion rights. “My wife encouraged me not to say it, but I did say it, unfortunately,” Nicholson said. He said that, at the time, it was an issue that he, like many young males, never truly thought about. Ultimately, Nicholson explained, he grew to understand that he was pro-life and that life must be protected at all stages.

“I am for every bill that moves us closer to pro-life,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson also weighed in on religious freedom. “The First Amendment is there to protect against a government infringing on people’s ability to worship as they see fit. Sen. Baldwin believes that stops at the church door. She’s wrong. In a big country of 300 million people, we’re going to have different ideas, and that’s fine… I will be on the front lines making sure that [religious freedom] will not be infringed.”

It will be interesting to see how the Republican primary shakes out. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), a popular figure many speculated would run, has bowed out. State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has also been mentioned as a possible candidate, along with Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch; State Sen. Leah Vukmir; State Rep. Dale Kooyenga; Eric Hovde, who finished second in the 2012 GOP Senate primary; and, of course, Kevin Nicholson, a conservative outsider who could prove to be an exciting option for voters.

Time will tell, but this is a race conservatives should be sure to watch.

Correction: In an earlier version of this piece, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and State Senator Leah Vukmir were misidentified. We regret the error.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jon Schweppe

Jon Schweppe is the Director of Government Affairs for American Principles Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonSchweppe

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