The fall election in Wisconsin is shaping up as a telling referendum on President Trump.
Why is that? It’s one of the take-homes from the debate last week at UWM between the two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate prior to their primary contest in two weeks. Both Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson came out four-square behind the president. Both are hitching their wagons to his popularity among Republican voters. There isn’t an inch of daylight between either of them and him.
One will be nominated and, if elected, would line up almost 100% with the president on trade and China; immigration and The Wall, abortion and the Supreme Court, Russia and Putin; sabre rattling at Iran and Korea; military spending; and tax cuts, including the implications for federal debt and deficit.
The political reality is neither could make it through the Aug. 14 primary if they took issue with Trump in any serious way and the other didn’t. The president has a strong base within the GOP, and taking him on in any way would destroy the chances of either Nicholson or Vukmir if they strayed from his personal platform.
The general election November 6, though, will be a completely different story. Some of same polls that show high Trump support inside the party also show the decline in the Republican Party’s in absolute numbers. A couple of recent polls showed the percentage of the voter identifying themselves as Republicans dropped three to five points to less than one-third.
They defected to the independent category, which went up by the same number of percentage points. The independents disapprove of the president’s job performance at 58%, with 40% approving. A high 46% strongly disapprove. The independents, who swing their votes back and forth between parties, will decide the outcome in November.
President Trump and his ardent followers will probably have a roaring economy behind them, but a lot can happen in the next three months. When will Mueller unload his legal case? Will the trade wars turn into a forest fire and burn a lot of farmers and small businesses? Will lawyers dig out the president’s personal tax returns?
Those-down-the-road concerns for the Nov. 13 general election surely bother Vukmir and Nicholson, but they to win the primary first, which they can’t do without a pledge of allegiance to all things Trump. Their total allegiance will make it hard for the winner to move to the center or to distance themselves from his policies for the general election.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin will run against the president and his agenda, and she will label the winner of the Vukmir-Nicholson contest as Trump puppets. She is significantly ahead in recent polls in face-offs with either Republican.
Baldwin has one other big factor working for her. Some voters may vote for gridlock to put a brake on GOP adventures, like The Wall. They may not like her, but may go there as a safety bet.
Yet another factor to her benefit is Trump’s erosion among female voters.
As the cliché goes, live by the sword, die by the sword. Live with President Trump, or die by President Trump. Nov. 6 will be a clear referendum on his first two years in office.
These voter dynamics illuminate the weakness of our primary election system. The extremes of either party dominate the inner-party elections. In California in contrast, the top two candidates go on the general election ballot regardless of party, causing candidates to play more to the center than the extremes.
Gov. Scott Walker does not have a primary, so he has been more circumspect on the presidential agenda and performance. The governor surely remembers the disrespect he got in the 2016 presidential primary from candidate Trump.
Walker has to be mindful that the independents kept him into office in the recall election of 2012 and the general election of 2014. He won by about seven points each time. He will be monitoring the president’s approval rating in Wisconsin closely to determine how cozy or distant he positions himself from President Trump.
Last week’s big surprise was a NBC News/Marist College poll that showed Democrat Tony Evers ahead of Gov. Walker by 13 points. That’s a big spread, even if there is a big margin for error.
In effect, it means that Evers has won the Democratic primary over his seven remaining opponents and that bigger campaign donations will start to flow his way. He is an inoffensive candidate, so may be the beneficiary of any Trumpian missteps between now and November.
Evers can run against the Trump agenda; Walker will keep his distance. Theirs is a general election contest, not a primary where the hard core on either side rules.
In both Wisconsin contests, the Trump factor remains pivotal.