© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wisconsin's 2022 midterms: What are the advantages and challenges for incumbents in key races?

Maayan Silver
Voting sign, arrow pointing to the left.

Updated at 9:21 AM CT
Kevin Nicholson, a former marine and unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin, announced Thursday he'll be running for governor in the Republican primary against former Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.

2022 is shaping up to be a fast-paced election year. Wisconsinites will vote for governor; one U.S. senator; eight congressional seats, including a competitive spot in the state’s third congressional district; the 17 odd-numbered seats in the Wisconsin state Senate and all 99 seats in the state Assembly. In addition to voting for governor, all of the state’s partisan executive and administrative offices are up for election.

Of course, the top of the ticket is the governor's race, in which Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is running for reelection. Another race that will be getting national attention is for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Ron Johnson.

Race for governor

UW political science professor Barry Burden unpacks these two races, starting with the one for governor. Evers is hoping to win a second term after defeating then-Gov. Scott Walker back in 2018. Burden says Evers has the advantage, as an incumbent and one with name recognition with voters.

“But he will face a formidable challenge, at least with one Republican candidate who's in the race — and that's Rebecca Kleefisch, former lieutenant governor who's attracting funding and endorsements. But there may be another Republican or two who get into the race, setting up a primary on that side of the aisle,” Burden explains.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers
Getty Images
Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers

Burden says Wisconsin is known for close elections, so it’s reasonable to proceed as if this will be a neck-and-neck race. He says even though Evers is the incumbent, which should give him the advantage, it’s going to be a difficult year for him.

“Voters are unhappy about a lot of things — with the economy, with education, with national politics. They're blaming all incumbents of both parties for what's gone wrong. And this is likely to be a good Republican year with a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat in the governor's mansion here in Wisconsin,” Burden says. “Republicans really have the advantage going into this cycle.”

Burden says Evers will probably have to campaign differently than he did in 2018 to hold on in a year when "he has headwinds rather than tailwinds."

According to Burden, Evers may be able to rely on his record of taking some popular actions with voters. For example, he signed a state budget that distributed some funding, cut taxes for many people around the state, doled out federal stimulus and COVID-19 relief funds to groups around the state, supported rural broadband and small businesses.

"So those are all things that I think give the governor, you know, a bit of a start ahead of his competitors. But he will face some challenges too. His approval ratings are underwater, like a lot of incumbent politicians. Some of his actions around public health and schooling during COVID have alarmed some residents of the state, so he's going to have to explain himself there." Burden also says Evers has received criticism for his handling of unrest in Kenosha in 2020.

His front runner challenger from the Republicans is Rebecca Kleefisch. She served as lieutenant governor of the state with Scott Walker for eight years. “She's raising money at a good clip has now raised several million dollars and has built up, I think, a lot of goodwill among her fellow Republicans around the state. So, it's certainly her nomination to lose,” he says.

Burden says who controls the governor's office is hugely important for the direction of the state over the next few years. “The state legislature is under Republican control — it has been for the last decade — it's likely to continue how to have Republican majorities in both the state Senate and the Assembly. So the governor's office determines whether Republicans have full control over state government or whether we maintain the current setup of divided government with a Democratic governor [and a] Republican Legislature as we’ve had for the last two years.”

Burden notes there's basically been a stalemate between Gov. Evers and Republicans in the Legislature. “They've agreed on almost nothing. He has vetoed a large number of bills that they sent him. They have, I think, stopped legislating on some issues feeling that it's not going to be productive in working with him."

There's also been a lot of suing of one another in court. “That would change radically if a Republican were elected governor, we would return to an era of unified Republican government. The agenda would, I think, move much faster and you'd see a lot of Republican priorities really come to fruition," he says.

Those include focusing on taxes and simplifying the tax code, mandating or providing incentives for schools to continue in person instruction, bringing forth tough-on-crime measures and changing the election system itself.

Race for U.S. Senate

Wisconsin is also going to be one of the top races in the country over the fight to control the U.S. Senate.

“Yeah, the entire country, if not much of the world, will be looking to Wisconsin because the Senate seat here will be one of the factors that determines whether the Democrats hold on to the Senate in Washington and hold on to their control of the federal government,” Burden explains.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin

Currently, Democrats have a bare majority in the Senate, control the House of Representatives and Democratic President Joe Biden is in office. “But they're on the verge of losing that and the [Ron] Johnson seat is one that Democrats would love to pick up, potentially to compensate for a loss they might have in another state.”

Burden says Johnson is clearly vulnerable. “He's a Republican in a state that Joe Biden won. He's the only Republican running this year for reelection in a state that Trump did not win. So that puts him in a precarious position. It's also a competitive state, as we've already discussed. So it's going to be a battle, I think, for him to hold on to the seat.”

There will be lots of money and lots of activity in those campaigns directly, but also from a lot of outside groups who are watching and want to have some influence here, he says. “So, voters should expect a tremendous amount of tension on that race."

Burden says, again, Johnson’s number one strength, like Evers, is that he's the incumbent. “His ability to raise money as a senator in Washington with connections to financial donors is helpful. It's also going to be a great year for the GOP with a Democrat in the White House. The pattern typically is that the president's party will lose seats in Congress and in midterm election.”

However, Johnson’s approval ratings are worse than a lot of other incumbents, and he does make controversial statements on issues where he doesn't have to be controversial, Burden says. “He has opinions about vaccines, about whether masks are effective, about whether the Jan. 6 events were an insurrection — were they armed or even promoted by Donald Trump or he's [Trump’s] responsible in any way. So, he has not been shy about really pushing, I think some extreme positions that are not always backed up by facts or even supported by his fellow Republicans.”

Burden says that will put him at some risk in a year when otherwise it'd be pretty good for Republicans like him.

And on that note of midterm elections being expectedly good for the party that doesn’t control the White House, Burden says there are few exceptions to this so-called “midterm loss phenomenon,” especially in congressional elections.

“It's a very stable pattern that happens in almost every midterm election,” he explains. “I think there have only been three exceptions to it since the Civil War, so very common pattern. The U.S. Senate, I will say, is a little less predictable in midterm elections because it's a smaller number of seats. They tend to be more competitive, visible races."

The likelihood that Biden Democrats lose in Wisconsin is not as predictable in the Senate as it would be in some lower-level offices, Burden says.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
Related Content