BROOKFIELD – Rob Hutton won his first election eight years ago by more than 7,000 votes. He was elected to a second and third term without even facing an opponent. But after 2016, the ground in suburban Milwaukee began to shift.
Hutton, a Republican, narrowly defeated his Democratic challenger in 2018 by 955 votes and he’s now in the midst of one of the most expensive Assembly races “not knowing really what to expect” in next week’s election.
“It’s hard to tie it to any one thing. I think the suburbs are always evolving in terms of folks coming in and out of those individual communities,” Hutton said Wednesday in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
His Democratic opponent sees the shift as a result of one issue Hutton can help control: the state response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans are on defense this year in the very place that solidified the state as a conservative powerhouse a decade ago. President Donald Trump has turned off some female voters here since his election in 2016 and Democrats hope the president’s handling of the pandemic is putting college-educated voters in play.
Combine those national issues with local ones and suburban Milwaukee is at risk for Republicans.
Democrats are raising unprecedented sums of money, and the GOP-controlled Legislature’s popularity has fallen in recent months while they have chosen not to take action against the pandemic.
“I have talked to multiple women who did vote for Trump in 2016 and regret that decision,” Sara Rodriguez, who is challenging Hutton, said. “They are moving to Biden and voting for Democrats all the way down the ticket. In particular, this decision was solidified by the handling of the pandemic at the national and the state level.”
Hutton’s race in Brookfield is one of the most competitive in the state as Democrats seek to flip it like they flipped the district next door in Wauwatosa in 2018.
But he doesn’t attribute that competition to Trump or the Legislature’s response to the pandemic as his opponent alleges. Hutton says demographic changes are moving the area’s politics, and the most important issue he hears while knocking on doors is residents’ safety — especially following unrest, looting and destruction in Kenosha and Wauwatosa, parts of which Hutton’s district covers.
“You can get a sense of demographic changes in both directions as homeowners change and as residents change,” Hutton said. “In all of our communities we have aging populations who eventually leave their homes … it’s always a matter of who comes in (and they) bring their political viewpoints and stage of life status with them.”
Rodriguez sees the landscape differently. Rodriguez said she decided to run for office because of Republican lawmakers’ reaction to the pandemic, and that’s the chief concern from voters she calls.
“I was actually not planning on running for office — that was not my original goal. But when the Republican-led Legislature made people choose between their health and right to vote in the spring election, I just felt my background in health care and epidemiology would be helpful.”
Rodriguez is a registered nurse and a health care executive, a former epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and has a master’s degree in public health.
“I am hearing voters say they overwhelmingly want us to listen to the health officials and scientists,” she said.
“They want to see (COVID-19 policies) implemented more widely across the state so we can get a better handle of the pandemic.”
More than $609,000 has been spent for and against both candidates and the relentless negative mailers against Rodriguez underscore Republicans’ concerns in the area, according to a recent tally by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
One mailer accuses Rodriguez of calling her opponent “a lying piece of sh*t” but Rodriguez said she doesn’t know where the Jobs First Coalition that paid for it found that information.
A check of her campaign Twitter account cited in the mailer shows Rodriguez tweeted about how to stay safe during the pandemic and criticized Hutton and Trump for golfing.
Several suburban seats in crosshairs
Hutton’s is not the only seat Republicans are working hard to keep: Reps. Jim Ott in Mequon, Dan Knodl in Germantown, Ken Skowronski in Franklin and Sen. Alberta Darling in River Hills are top targets by Democrats this cycle.
But even if they have a good election night, Democrats have little chance of winning either the Assembly or Senate. Republicans control the Assembly 63 to 34 and the Senate 18 to 13.
Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said he’s seeing some of the best pickup opportunities for Democrats in years. He contended Republicans failed to adequately respond to the coronavirus pandemic and voters are turning to Democrats instead.
Republican strategist Mark Graul said Republicans to some extent have had to play defense in the Assembly in recent years because they hold so many seats.
Down-ballot Republicans should perform well even if Trump loses the state, he said, noting U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson got more votes than Trump did four years ago.
“You have long-time incumbents who have worked their districts pretty well, are well known and liked,” he said of suburban Republicans who find themselves with stiff challenges.
Brandon Scholz, a longtime Republican strategist, said Democrats are running a campaign of hating the president rather than one on new policies.
“That may not be a unifying message to bring that disaffected Republican into the voting booth,” he said.
Heated race for Darling Senate seat
In the Senate, all eyes are on Darling, the River Hills Republican who has long co-led the Legislature’s budget committee.
“That district is almost a poster for the suburban woman, the Republican suburban woman who is just turned off and wants to be able to claim a vote that she can be proud of,” Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Mason, said during a recent virtual forum hosted by WisPolitics.com.
Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, at the forum said the district is exactly the type that Democrats are targeting this year. But Democrats won’t be able to win it, he said.
“They got the wrong candidate. Neal Plotkin is not the guy that’s going to come charging to the suburbs to compel female college-educated voters to vote for him. Alberta Darling, however, she is everything they’re looking for. Alberta Darling just happens to be the iron lady of the state Senate,” he said, referring to the nickname given former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Democrats are seeing opportunities because suburban Republicans haven’t recognized that their voters are starting to seek something different, Hintz argued.
“Guys like Dan Knodl or Rob Hutton or Jim Ott, they’re as conservative as they get,” Hintz said. “Districts have changed and their representatives haven’t. Those guys have not moderated at all, and I think that’s part of the reason they’re facing some pretty big challenges.”
In a sign of how emboldened Democrats feel, last week they invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in trying to take out Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. The long-time GOP leader from Rochester has never faced more than token opposition for his reliably Republican district.
Money is raining down on other races as well, according to recent tallies by the liberal-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
About $500,000 has been spent on the Assembly District 14 race in Wauwatosa, a district previously held by conservatives like Scott Walker before he was governor and was flipped by Democrats in 2018 by Robyn Vining, who faces a challenge from Bonnie Lee, the director of outreach ministries at a Baptist church.
Another high-spending Assembly race — about $442,000 so far — is in District 21, where GOP Rep. Jessie Rodriguez of Oak Creek is seeking to defend her seat against Erik Brooks, the mayor of South Milwaukee.
Democrats have attacked Republicans for their handling of the pandemic, especially their decision to go to court to try to overturn Evers’ stay-at-home order and his mask requirement. They succeeded in throwing out the stay-at-home order and the legal fight over masks is ongoing.
Republicans have offered mixed messages on COVID-19, with some saying they would eliminate the mask requirement after the election and others saying they would not.
Republicans have criticized Democrats for protests over racial justice, saying they were siding with criminals and those who have looted and burned cities.
In one mailer, Republicans trying to help Knodl provided graphic details of an alleged May sexual assault by Jacob Blake, a Black man who was paralyzed after he was shot in the back by police in August.
Another mailer accuses Sara Rodriguez of bringing “radical politics” to “your front door” with scenes of fire, riots and looting in the background.