The Richter scale reading from Tuesday’s Spring election did not show a major earthquake for Republicans, but the tremors were strong enough that the GOP can feel good about the results and Democrats should continue to worry about what the future may hold in the upcoming midterms. In the aftermath, for Republicans, it was two steps forward, and the march continues. For Democrats, it was one historic and important step forward, but two steps back.
Republicans can feel good that two of their major messages – more parental control in local schools/anti Critical Race Theory and get tough on crime – seemed to resonate with base voters. That’s certainly the case when you look at the results in the City of Waukesha, where three Republican-backed conservative candidates swept all the open seats on the local school board. In Menomonee Falls, three challengers knocked off two incumbents and claimed an open seat, and in the Elmbrook School District, a conservative who argued more needs to be done to remove sexually explicit books from the school won a three-year term after the incumbent failed to make it past the February primary. Similar school board results throughout the state favored Republican-backed candidates, with the notable exception being the Mequon-Thiensville School District, where voters again rejected an anti-CRT candidate who had previously lost in a recall election.
Further evidence of the GOP Spring election success can be seen in the strong victory of Waukesha Circuit Court Judge Maria Lazar, who ousted incumbent Appeals Court Judge Lori Kornblum with a tough on crime, anti-Gov. Tony Evers platform. Lazar had major backing from conservative activists and donors, and she had an extremely effective broadcast television ad that skewered Kornblum on her ties to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and the governor. These messages were especially effective in Waukesha County, the key battleground in that race. It’s an important win that buoys GOP hopes for November.
Those who read tea leaves see the making of a November message for Republicans: continue to hit on the school-based culture wars and hammer Democrats for being soft on crime. As the school board and judicial races show, these messages can move the needle if the GOP can raise enough funds to drive home their messages via a multi-platform campaign that spans broadcast and cable television, social media and old-fashioned knock and drop campaigning in targeted neighborhoods, something Democrats have excelled at in recent years.
Republicans also can feel good about claiming the Kenosha County Executive’s seat, where GOP State Rep. Samantha Kerkman of Salem Lakes gained the top spot after winning the primary. Most local observers expected the Democrat vote to consolidate behind County Court Clerk Rebecca Matoska-Mentink and push her into a victory, but Kerkman leveraged her base as the longest serving Republican in the Assembly and expanded it to win a close race. It’s probably the final nail in the coffin of calling Kenosha a Democrat county.
The best news for Democrats is the sweeping victory of Cavalier Johnson as Milwaukee’s first elected African American mayor. By racking up an impressive 71 percent of the vote, Johnson takes the City’s top spot and begins to serve out the two years remaining on the term of now Ambassador to Luxembourg and former mayor Tom Barrett. If Gov. Evers was looking for any silver linings in Tuesday’s results, he can find it in Mayor Johnson’s impressive victory. Having a strong Milwaukee Mayor who is a Democrat can only help Evers come November, and expect to see the two leaders spend a lot of time together between now and the fall election. That can only benefit Gov. Evers, who most likely sees Tuesday’s results as a reaffirmation that he must rack up major gains in Dane and Milwaukee counties as he plots his path to re-election.
Coming out of Tuesday, attention will quickly turn to the two major August primaries that are fast approaching. First, the GOP governor’s race, which has taken on an almost comical phase with former governor and one-time President George W. Bush cabinet member Tommy Thompson inching closer to joining the fray at 80 years old and meeting with ex-President Donald Trump while rumors abound of yet another “big name candidate” waiting in the wings. All these rumblings only make so-called “front runner” and former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch wonder how to maneuver through what is sure to be the political equivalent of a sticky wicket. Outsider Kevin Nicholson and State Rep. Tim Ramthun are more than a thorn in her side, and now it’s likely that she will soon have more to contend with in order to secure a nomination that many once thought she had in the bag.
This happens while the Democrat candidates for the chance to battle incumbent U.S. Senator Ron Johnson fight for attention and support, with some turning to costly, traditional television advertising and the issuance of policy papers – and, in a few cases, perhaps more pointed rhetoric. Current Lieut. Gov. Mandela Barnes still has a comfortable advantage, but some worry he is sitting on his lead while newcomer and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry uses his considerable resources on television ads, which have helped him move up in the polls. State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski probably thinks she can’t afford to let Lasry climb in the polls, so she, too, has used some of her considerable resources to launch a television blitz in an effort to bolster her standing. At the same time, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, whom many insiders privately believe would be the best and strongest candidate to put up against Johnson, keeps knocking at the door and trying to gain political traction, and he should not be underestimated. The others in the race, including the thoughtful and well meaning Steve Olikara, have not made any type of dent, so the race is really about the four “big names.” It’s Barnes in the lead and his to lose.
Pundits and prognosticators will quickly move past the GOP gains –symbolic and otherwise – from the Spring elections and begin to focus on the August primaries and November general elections. These recent races are important and the Republicans did score some victories, but they were like spring training – the real races start now.
And hope springs eternal.