What's at stake in governor, Senate race one year out from 2022 midterms

NOW: What’s at stake in governor, Senate race one year out from 2022 midterms

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- It's officially the one-year mark from what's expected to be a hotly contested 2022 midterm election in Wisconsin.

All eyes are on the battleground state to see who comes out on top in the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial race.

Nov. 8, 2022 is election day in Wisconsin, and no one can predict the outcome. But most can agree it will likely be another nail-biter. While Wisconsin has been deeply divided for years, four of the last six presidential elections were decided by less than a percentage point.

Another close election occurred in 2018 when then-incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker was narrowly defeated by Democrat Tony Evers by a margin of 1.1 percent. It was the second-closest race of the 2018 election cycle, behind Florida's governor's race.

"We haven't had a blowout win since Governor Tommy Thompson," said David Canon, UW-Madison political science professor. "We really are the battleground of the battleground states, there's no doubt about that."

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and U.S. Senator Ron Johnson are two of the most targeted incumbents across the county, even though Johnson has yet to decide whether he'll seek a third term.

Governor's Race

Gov. Tony Evers is vying for a second term after his victory over Scott Walker in 2018, which broke the Republican stronghold in the state after the party maintained control of state government for nearly a decade.

"Evers' strengths is his record, being the one who can block Republicans' agenda such as restricting access to abortion, banning so-called critical race theory and lifting COVID-19 mandates," said Republican political strategist Bill McCoshen.

"His best argument is he's the goalie, he's the check and balance, which I think is missing in Washington D.C. right now, and I think people relate to that and like the idea of divided government," McCoshen said.

On the other hand, Canon said it will be difficult for Evers to tout his accomplishments on the campaign trail since many of the policies he ran on, including raising the minimum wage, legalizing medical marijuana, and Medicaid expansion, have all been rejected by GOP leaders.

"It's really hard for the governor and the state Legislature to agree on much of anything," said Canon. "I think [Evers' campaign] will be more of a combination of 'here's what I would have done if I was able to get things done,' and 'here's what I was able to stop.'"

Education, Pandemic Factors

The topic of education is also likely going to be a centerpiece of Evers' campaign, who served as the state superintendent before taking the oath of office.

Virginia's governor's race gave clear indicators that education and critical race theory are on the ballot, a topic that worked for Republican Glenn Youngkin's campaign. Younkin defeated former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) by about two points, a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 points in 2020.

"Education crosses over to moderate and independent, and I think that model can work here," said McCoshen.

Billions in federal relief aid that flowed through Wisconsin did, however, give Evers an upper hand, said Democratic strategist Melissa Balduaff.

It gave him the ability to invest in small businesses, agriculture, mental health, violence prevention and broadband, among others. Evers was able to do so without Republican lawmakers standing in the way, despite their attempts to pass legislation to give them more control over how the funds were spent. That bill was vetoed by Evers.

"I do think the one thing Democrats have on their side is the fact that there are dollars flowing into our communities and people are going to be feeling the benefits," said Melissa Baldauff, a former aide to Evers. "I think our main streets and families are going to be feeling a little more economically secure a year from now."

Evers' approval numbers are down from 50% to 45% in a new Marquette University Law School poll. While a majority of voters, 53%, approve of how he's handling the pandemic, 53% of respondents also said they would rather vote for someone else, according to the poll.

"It sets up a challenging political environment not only for Evers, but for other candidates," said Marquette's Poll Director Charles Franklin.

Other political figures polled from both parties were all viewed more unfavorably than favorably, including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Donald Trump and former VP Mike Pence.

"That's unusual, I think. We have never, in a Marquette poll, found all the political figures we asked about to be under water," said Franklin. "It shows voters are grumpy with both parties." 

GOP front-runner Rebecca Kleefisch

Evers will be on defense to Republican attacks, and right now that's GOP front-runner Rebecca Kleefisch.

Kleefisch, Wisconsin’s former lt. governor, has been on the campaign trail the longest. Her platform so far has consisted of calling her opponent a "weak leader," while rebelling against COVID-19 mandates and pushing to reform election laws.

It comes as Republicans continue to question election integrity while others falsely allege the election was stolen. Baldauff believes that narrative will be difficult for both parties to overcome in the midterm elections.

"I think the biggest weakness we’re all coming into this election is the fact that Republicans want to sow distrust in our democratic institutions," Baldauff said. "I think the good news is folks in Wisconsin are not buying it."

The Republican Party so far has focused on Evers' handling of the pandemic, Kenosha riots last summer and a backlog of unemployment claims during COVID-19.

While the party is focused on those topics, McCoshen doesn't think those issues will resonate with voters come November 2022.

"All of those will be in the rearview mirror by then, so you have to focus on current issues to capture the energy of voters, and I think right now, that's education."

The Republican party is starting to shift its messaging to focus more on the economy, concerns over inflation and lowering taxes.

The Trump Factor

One key endorsement Kleefisch is currently missing is former President Donald Trump, whose support plays a huge role in elections, even though he's not running. 

Trump is instead encouraging former Republican Congressman Sean Duffy to run for governor, a strong ally of Trump.

"Trump is not on the ballot, but Trumpism is, and we are still seeing a lot of these candidates in office embracing this kind of extremism that he is known for," said Baldauff.

However, both parties are now questioning Trump's impact on elections after Youngkin accepted his endorsement, but rarely spoke about the former president on the campaign trail.

It shows Republicans' ability to distance themselves from Trump and still flourish without him on the ballot. It's a strategy the Republican Party of Wisconsin is keeping in mind heading into next year.

Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, believes it's a roadmap that can work in Wisconsin. When asked if it's time for Republicans to stop aligning with Trump, Jefferson said candidates need to establish themselves.

"It's not about alignments with this person or that person, it's about each individual and what they plan to do for voters of this state," said Jefferson.

U.S. Senate Race

The race for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin has already attracted more than a dozen candidates, a majority of them Democrats.

Senator Ron Johnson's indecision whether to seek a third term is having an effect on other potential candidates. The longer he waits, the harder it is for a Republican to build a campaign, said Canon.

"Just being able to have the infrastructure in place, the funding, the people and all its takes to run a statewide campaign, you can't just put one of those together overnight," Canon said.

Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2018 U.S Senate nomination, recently launched a $1.5-million ad campaign for his nonprofit Better Friend Corp. It's clear evidence he wants to run, but Nicholson hasn't decided which race to enter.

He's campaigned on national and state issues, but hasn't declared for Senate or governor, which McCoshen said could impact his potential bid. 

"His indecision is ultimately hurting his potential for either race," McCoshen said. "I think he has to make up his mind to either get in one or none."

Before November's election, Wisconsin will hold its primary on Aug. 9, 2022.

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