Special election: Wisconsin Democrats see chance to take red Senate seat

MADISON — Wisconsin Democrats are banking that backlash against President Donald Trump will help them compete in a special election for a conservative state Senate district and set the tone for this fall's election.

Republican state Rep. Adam Jarchow and Somerset Democrat Patty Schachtner are running in northwestern Wisconsin's 10th Senate District in Tuesday's special election. Jarchow would seem a strong favorite.

But it's the first time a Republican has faced a Democrat in a Wisconsin election since President Trump took office. Democrats say people are so appalled by the president — and by extension the rest of the Republican Party — that Schachtner has a chance to compete in a deep-red district.

They point out Democrats captured 15 seats in Virginia's House of Delegates in November and defeated Roy Moore in Alabama's U.S. Senate race last month. If Schachtner can make the race against Jarchow close, it would send a message to Wisconsin Republicans who have controlled the Legislature for seven straight years: Beware the fall elections.

"The national trend line is in the Democrats' favor," said liberal political strategist Sachin Chheda. "I do think she's going to do much better than Democrats usually do in that district. Republicans having to fight really hard sends the message, not the result. If they're fighting this hard in a district they should win easily, that's meaningful."

The 10th Senate District lies on the state's northwestern border just outside Minnesota's Twin Cities. It's a largely rural area studded with small towns and lakes that has trended conservative for years.

Republican Sean Duffy has represented the region in Congress since 2011. President Trump won every county in the district in 2016. Republican Sheila Harsdorf represented the district in the state Senate for 16 years, defeating her last two Democratic challengers by 18.5 points and 26 points before resigning in November to serve as state agriculture secretary.

Jarchow looks formidable. He's in the middle of his third in the Assembly. He's spent his time in Madison pushing bills aimed at pleasing his rural constituency, such as restricting game wardens' access to private land, eliminating the minimum hunting age, lowering the drinking age and ending state wolf management efforts.

Schachtner doubles as the St. Croix County medical examiner and a Somerset school board member.

The outcome can't change control of the Senate, where Republicans currently hold an 18-13 advantage.

Still, all eyes are on this race for signs of anti-President Trump backlash that could signal GOP trouble in the fall.

Money is flying in the race. The latest campaign finance reports show Schachtner raised just shy of $167,000 from early December through the first week of January. Jarchow raised about $138,600 over roughly the same span, with $19,000 since Jan. 5. He outspent Schachtner by about $76,000 in December.

Americans for Prosperity and the Republican State Leadership Committee are both running radio and digital ads supporting Jarchow. The Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund, which runs media campaigns supporting Democrats, has reported spending $30,000 on digital ads.

Jarchow shrugged off suggestions that President Trump could be a factor and that the outcome would mean something for the fall.

"I'll let the pundits worry about that," he said. "I think the people of the 10th are pretty discerning and they're going to vote based on the folks that are running. I've led on some big reforms in the Legislature and I'm looking forward to doing that in the Senate."

Schachtner, too, downplayed President Trump's potential impact on the race. She painted the election as a match-up between a "grandma" — she has nine grandchildren — and a politician who doesn't care about regular people.

"I have no expectations," she said. "I know this is a very conservative and red district and I know this is an uphill fight."