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Turnout and party strategies key concerns ahead of 7th Congressional election

Map depicting Tuesday's results by party majority in each county (Only counties fully inside the 7th Congressional district shown). (WSAW Photo)
Map depicting Tuesday's results by party majority in each county (Only counties fully inside the 7th Congressional district shown). (WSAW Photo)(WSAW)
Published: Feb. 21, 2020 at 6:46 PM CST
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The 7th Congressional district is likely to remain comfortably red, political strategists say, as the 26-county area heads into two more spring elections. Tuesday’s 30% voter turnout resulted in all but 3 of the district’s 26 full or partial counties voting a Republican majority, setting up a race between 9-year state senator Tom Tiffany (R) and Wausau school board president Tricia Zunker (D).

If Zunker prevails, it will be due to Jason Church voters rejecting Tiffany’s message and volunteers turning out in force to mobilize the base, state Democratic party chair Ben Wikler says. Church, who only earned 42% of the Republican vote on Tuesday, asked his supporters to back Tiffany going into the general special election.

“I think that there are voters who voted for Church who absolutely reject Tom Tiffany’s brand of inside self-dealing Republican politics,” Wikler said Friday. “I think the way to win an election in the 7th Congressional district is door to door, neighbor to neighbor, conversation to conversation.” He noted that the party had launched more than 100 canvasses around the state this month, a number that is more typical of a partisan Fall election.

But Church voters migrating to Zunker’s message is unlikely, strategists say, and the data backs up their assertions. The district, which voted for Trump by 20 percentage points in 2016, measures 8 points more Republican than the country as a whole on the Cook Political Report. It’s also home to six of the nation’s 206 pivot counties, which voted for former president Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but turned to President Donald Trump in 2016. One of those pivot counties is Lincoln—which voted 70% Republican on Tuesday.

Ground-level efforts could also have been what cinched the election for Tiffany, despite millions poured into digital and TV ads for both candidates—making it the most expensive Congressional primary in the district.

“Campaigns that really invest in that ground game seem to do better, especially recently,” Giordano said. “It really is about the internal infrastructure, the door knocking, the personal contact.”

“It’s gonna be an uphill road for any Democratic candidate,” Giordano said. “It’s really tough to win when you don’t have the numbers on your side.”

“I think Republicans are in a very good position to hold the seat on May 12,” state GOP executive director Mark Jefferson said. “I don’t think the Democrats feel confident at all about this seat, but we’re taking nothing for granted.”

Democrats point to Wisconsin’s roughly 100,000 swing voters who cast ballots for both Democrat senator Tammy Baldwin and Republican governor Scott Walker in the 2018 fall election as a key for candidates.

“Those voters are voters who have demonstrated their receptivity to a message like Tricia Zunker’s,” Wikler said. Statewide, Baldwin easily beat her Republican challenger Leah Vukmir despite much closer races in nearly every other category. But in the 7th Congressional District, Baldwin still only took 48% of the vote, with Evers taking even less at 41%.

But regardless of party, voter turnout in northern and central Wisconsin consistently remains higher than the state average, which in non-presidential primaries hasn’t reached over 20% since 2002.

“I just think northern Wisconsin and central Wisconsin tend to have very active voters, a very informed electorate,” Jefferson noted, who believes turnout will still be risky for the Republican base given Gov. Evers’ choice to set the special general election date five weeks later than the non-partisan and Presidential primary on April 7.

“I feel like the Republicans are going to galvanize around the candidate,” Giordano said.

Tiffany and Zunker face off on May 12, after beating challengers Jason Church and Lawrence Dale in the primary on February 18.

Note: The original version of this article stated the Dem. party turned out 'more than 100 canvassers' this month. It has been updated to clarify that more than 100 canvasses were launched.

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