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Analysis: Unexpected defeat in rural Wis. special election sets off GOP alarm bells

President Donald Trump hugs Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker after announcing the first U.S. assembly plant for electronics giant Foxconn in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 26, 2017. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

WASHINGTON - Ten months is an eternity in politics, but a stunning Democratic victory Tuesday in a special election deep in the heart of Trump country suggests a blue tsunami could be forming.

President Donald Trump became the first Republican to carry Wisconsin in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan by running up his score in places like the rural 10th state Senate district, which includes a swath of five counties between Eau Claire and Superior along the Minnesota border.

Trump won there by 17 points in 2016. A special election was triggered when Gov. Scott Walker tapped a popular state senator, who had held the seat since 2000, to become his agriculture secretary. Tuesday night, Democratic candidate Patty Schachtner won by nine points.

Wisconsin conservative talk radio legend Charlie Sykes, a Trump critic, called the results ominous and said his prominent friends inside the GOP are freaking out. "Hard to overstate the anxiety this will cause," Sykes said on Twitter.

Walker, who looks a lot more vulnerable in his quest for a third term than he did yesterday, called the results "a wake up call." In a flurry of tweets that posted around midnight, the governor urged his supporters to take nothing for granted. Republicans should not "presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin," Walker wrote on Twitter.

Unlike with Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, the Trump team cannot blame a flawed candidate. The GOP nominee, Adam Jarchow, is a solid assemblyman who ran a spirited campaign. Four years ago, in fact, he won his seat by defeating Schachtner's son and has worked hard since then to cultivate a base of support.

Mostly under the radar, the special election had become a proxy war and Republicans significantly outspent the Democrats: Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, poured $50,000 into the race. Two other GOP-aligned groups funded by the business community contributed another $80,000.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, backed by Barack Obama and Eric Holder, spent $10,000. Tammy Baldwin, one of 10 Democratic senators up for reelection this year in a state Trump carried, recorded a get-out-the-vote message for Schachtner.

There is an important lesson here for national Democrats: Schachtner is the sort of candidate who can actually defeat GOP incumbents in red congressional districts this fall. She has deep roots in the community, and she is not a fire-breathing liberal.

Her campaign focused not on attacking Trump but fighting the opioid crisis, improving access to health care and bringing good-paying jobs to the region. She didn't need to talk about the president to benefit from an outpouring of progressive energy and conservative apathy.

She's the chief medical examiner for St. Croix County, a former EMT and a member of the school board. She is also a trustee for the local food pantry and sits on the board for a community center that helps victims of sexual and domestic violence.

The first paragraph of the biographical page on Schachtner's websitenotes that she is "a former member of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association," and that "she and her family have enjoyed hunting in Wisconsin for generations." She's been married to her husband, Joe, for 39 years, and they have six grown children and nine grandchildren.

Asked whether her win is a harbinger of Democratic gains this fall, she told the Associated Press: "It certainly could be." "My message has always been be kind, be considerate and we need to help people when they're down," she said. "We just need to be kind to people who are less fortunate and just help."

Bigger picture: The upset is the 34th Democratic pickup in the 2018 cycle. "Republicans have [already] flipped four seats from blue to red - two in the Republican-trending Deep South, one in New Jersey and one in Massachusetts," Dave Weigel notes. "But on average, even in races that went against them, Democrats have improved on their margins from the 2016 rout. In other Tuesday elections, Democrat Dennis Degenhardt won 43 percent of the vote in Wisconsin's 58th Assembly District; in 2016, Hillary Clinton won just 28 percent of the vote there, and no Democrat contested the seat. In Iowa's 6th House District, Democrat Rita DeJong won 44 percent of the vote; in 2016, the party's nominee won just 35 percent. In South Carolina's 99th House District, Democrat Cindy Boatwright lost with 43 percent of the vote; the party had not run a candidate for the seat in this decade."

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says control of the Wisconsin Senate is now in play, which has significant implications for 2020 redistricting: "Once she is seated, Republicans will hold an 18-14 advantage, with one district vacant. That seat belonged to Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, who joined Walker's administration last month, and won't be decided until November, when 17 of the state's 33 Senate districts are up for election."

Liberals are pumped.

From a Democratic pollster at Global Strategy Group: "I mean I don't want to read too much into it, but if the rest of Wisconsin swung as much as tonight's special elections, Scott Walker would lose by 25 points," Will Jordan wrote on Twitter.

Author Information: James Hohmann is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post.