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Trump factored heavily in Schachtner win, professor says

Forces outside St. Croix County were at play last week when Patty Schachtner became the first Democrat to win a 10th Senate District seat since the 1990s.

In the weeks leading up to the election, piles of money surged into the campaigns of both Schachtner and her GOP challenger, Rep. Adam Jarchow.

According to state campaign filings, more than $40,000 flowed into the winner's campaign from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin in the final three days leading up to the special election — nearly all of that coming on the day voters went to the polls. Jarchow saw nearly as much from his party on Jan. 10 — about $38,000.

And the parties both saw major contributions from around the state and country in the run-up to the special election.

"It was a whole lot of spending by various groups to try to shape the outcome," said Neil Kraus, chairman of the UW-River Falls political science department.

But in analyzing the outcome, Kraus said there was a larger factor at play: President Donald Trump. He said neither candidate made specific mention of the president in the run-up, but that didn't matter.

"He's kind of the elephant in the room here," the professor said.

When asked why she thought she won, Schachtner pointed to the sour taste left by some negative mailers that went out to voters. One such effort described how Schachtner was sued in the past by the Somerset School District over a lunch bill that she eventually paid. The senator-elect said that tactic likely backfired among others who have also experienced hardships.

Schachtner said she focused on "being nice and open."

That was wise, Kraus said.

Nice, he said, is the opposite of what many people see in Trump, who frequently turns to Twitter to ridicule those in his crosshairs.

"Her message of kindness speaks to Trump and the state of our politics directly," Kraus said.

'A comfortable margin'

Kraus considered the context of the special election, which includes 2016 election results when Sen. Sheila Harsdorf — the Republican who held the seat since 2000 — defeated Democratic challenger Diane Odeen 63-38. Kraus also noted the comfortable margin by which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton that year; Trump won all five counties in the 10th Senate District, exceeding 60 percent in both Polk and Burnett counties.

Normally, Kraus said, a special election in a reliable GOP district would mean smooth sailing for the Republican candidate. In the run-up to the special election, he figured a four- to five-point Schachtner loss would have represented a major gain for Democrats.

"She didn't just eke out a win — she won by a pretty comfortable percentage," he said.

When juxtaposing those factors against the 11-point margin for Schachtner, he ruled out low voter turnout as the sole reason for the victory, though he said it could have played a role.

Rather, he suspected a mix of Democrats becoming highly energized, Republicans staying home and voters experiencing a change of heart.

"It can't all be turnout," Kraus said.

The surprise victory didn't go unnoticed nationally. Media organizations including the New York Times and CNN carried stories about Schachtner's win.

Shortly after the results came in, Gov. Scott Walker went on a Twitter spree, blasting out eight consecutive tweets carrying an all-caps "wake-up call" message imploring supporters to spread the word about GOP-led accomplishments.

"Senate District 10 special election win by a Democrat is a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin," Walker tweeted on the night of the special election.

Kraus said the governor — who is seeking his third term this fall — was likely thinking of the November elections.

"There's obviously a lot of concern that this could be an indication of what might happen later in the year," Kraus said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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