Donald Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million in the 2016 presidential election, yet narrow victories in three Democratic-leaning Great Lakes states gave the Republican the majority he needed to prevail in the Electoral College. The three states were Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Trump won Wisconsin by 0.7 points (22,748 votes), Michigan by 0.2 points (10,704 votes) and Pennsylvania by 0.7 points (44,292 votes). These 77,744 votes put him in the White House.
The headline from the conservative Weekly Standard read: “The Election Came Down to 77,744 Votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.” The Washington Post announced: “Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states.” A year after the election, Democrat Hillary Clinton—the winner of the popular vote—devoted a section of her book on the campaign to addressing “what happened” in these three states of the “industrial Midwest.”
So Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were kind of a big deal on November 8, 2016. And, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were also kind of a big deal on November 6, 2018. The three states had Senate races in which prominent conservatives were challenging supposedly vulnerable Democratic incumbents. The three states also had gubernatorial contests. That’s six major races in the three states that gave Trump the presidency.
Democrats won all of them. Three Democratic senators—Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, and Pennsylvania’s Robert Casey—all won with ease. Three Democratic gubernatorial candidates—Tony Evers in Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, and Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania—were also winners. In Michigan, where there was an open-seat race to fill the position being vacated by the state’s Republican attorney general, a progressive Democrat (civil-rights lawyer Dana Nessel) won. In Wisconsin, the incumbent Republican attorney general was beaten by a progressive Democrat (voting-rights advocate Josh Kaul).
The shift in Wisconsin was particularly dramatic. Republican Governor Scott Walker, the anti-labor zealot who in many senses initiated the scorched-earth “divide-and-conquer” politics that Trump took national in 2016, was bidding for reelection to a third full term. Walker has since 2011 been a favorite of right-wing Republican strategists. Indeed, after the presidential election, conservative political guru Grover Norquist wrote: “Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016 did not lay the groundwork for Republican political dominance. But the March 2011 signing of ACT 10, a dramatic reform of public sector labor laws, by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker certainly did. To understate it: If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics. It’s that big a deal.”
David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association and former chairman of the American Conservative Union, hailed Walker for dealing blows to organized labor by undermining teacher unions and enacting anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation. Keene was so enthusiastic about Walker, a failed 2016 presidential contender, that he suggested Trump should borrow a page (or two) from his former rival. “It’s the best model [Trump] can have,” said the counselor to the GOP presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney.
Walker’s decision to launch his governorship by attacking public-school teachers, nurses, snowplow drivers, and their unions inspired mass protests in Wisconsin. But the governor persevered, just as Trump has more recently persevered in the face of protests by critics of his sexism, bigotry, and xenophobia. Keene suggested in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal just after the presidential election that picking big fights early on was a sly strategy, arguing with regard to Walker that, “Once you’ve won those one or two big things, the other things aren’t as big in the minds of the people who are protesting.”
Trump became a fan of Walker. The two worked together on boondoggle projects—like the state’s $4.1 billion subsidy scheme for the scandal-plagued Taiwanese corporation Foxconn—and the president swept into Wisconsin just days before the 2018 election to talk up “One of the most capable members of government: Governor Scott Walker.” The president even attacked Walker’s challenger, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, charging that the Democrat—whose name Trump mispronounced—wanted “illegal aliens to flood Wisconsin.”
As part of a fiercely negative and wildly expensive campaign attacking Evers, Walker echoed Trump’s anti-immigrant demagoguery in a campaign ad that derided immigrants as “illegals.”
In other words, in a state that gave Trump the presidency in 2016, Walker ran a Trump-style campaign in 2018. And he lost to Evers, a former school teacher who ran with the support of the unions the governor had conspired to crush. Evers ran a better campaign than had past rivals of Walker, and his strategies were far savvier than those employed by Clinton when she became the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose the state since 1984. Yet this was about more than candidates and strategies.
After too many setbacks over too many years, Democrats were on a winning streak this year in Wisconsin.
Democratic Senator Baldwin, a top target of the Koch brothers and Trump, swept to a 55-45 victory as an outspoken critic of the president’s tax policies and a steady supporter of Medicare for All. State Treasurer candidate Sarah Godlewski won with relative ease, taking a post that had been held by a Republican, and Doug LaFollette, an ardent critic of the president’s environmental policies, was a big winner in his bid for reelection as Secretary of State.
Democrats won every statewide contest in Wisconsin Tuesday: taking a Senate seat and five constitutional offices. The last time Democrats swept a Senate seat and a full slate of statewide posts was in 1982, when the party was at the peak of its strength in the modern era.
In another show of strength, Evers won five Wisconsin counties that went for Trump—including the pivotal swing county of Kenosha After Trump won Kenosha in 2016, national media outlets reported on the story of a historic industrial town that backed the billionaire Republican. This year, Evers won Kenosha County 51-46, while Baldwin finished on the winning side of a 57-43 split. That was a very good result for the Democrats and a very bad result for Donald Trump.