Smart Politics

History Gives Walker Slim Odds to Win

State voters rarely elect a gubernatorial candidate whose party holds the presidency.

By , Smart Politics - Feb 13th, 2018 02:09 pm
Gov. Scott Walker. Photo by Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Gov. Scott Walker. Photo by Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Democrats are expected to make numerous pick-ups across the nation’s 36 states holding gubernatorial elections in 2018 with the GOP needing to defend 12 of the 16 open seats held by term-limited or retiring governors including battlegrounds like Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio.

Several Republican governors running for reelection reside in blue Northeastern states, but high approval ratings make them strong favorites to win another term. The most recent Morning Consult poll finds Republicans Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (69 percent), Larry Hogan of Maryland (67 percent), and Phil Scott of Vermont (63 percent) all boasting approval ratings ranking in the Top 5 from across the nation.

One GOP governor on the ballot this November who is not in as enviable a position is Wisconsin’s Scott Walker – sitting at just a 43 percent approval rating with his electorate according to Morning Consult and seven points underwater with 50 percent disapproving of his job performance.

Walker trails only Illinois’ Bruce Rauner (24 points underwater) as the country’s least popular Republican gubernatorial incumbent on the ballot this year.

If he is victorious in 2018, Walker will tie Wisconsin’s record of four gubernatorial victories joining fellow Republican Tommy Thompson.

However, Walker faces an electorate that has been notorious for voting against the party of the sitting president in gubernatorial elections dating back nearly a century.

Wisconsin is currently tied for the fourth largest such streak in the nation – electing a governor from the opposing party of the sitting president in seven consecutive elections.

Wisconsin’s streak began in 1994 with Bill Clinton in office as Governor Thompson won his third term during a national Republican wave. The Badger State elected Thompson again in 1998 with Walker victorious three times (2010, 2012, 2014) during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Meanwhile, Democrat Jim Doyle was elected in 2002 and 2006 with Republican George W. Bush in office.

Wyoming leads the nation at nine gubernatorial wins in a row by a nominee from a different party than the president dating back to 1982 with Tennessee (1986) and New Jersey (1989) next at eight straight.

The streaks in Wyoming and Tennessee are likely to end this November with Republicans heavily favored to hold the open seats of Matt Mead and Bill Haslam respectively.

Like Wisconsin, Kansas (since 1990), New Mexico (1990), and Oklahoma (1990) have also failed to elect governors from the party of the sitting president for seven straight cycles.

The numbers do not get much better for Walker taking a deeper dive into the 20th Century.

Overall, Wisconsinites have elected a gubernatorial nominee from the sitting president’s party in just five of the last 32 elections dating back to 1932, or 15.6 percent of the time.

Democrats have endured a particularly woeful record during this 85+-year span, winning only one of 20 such races.

The party’s lone victory came in 1962 when Attorney General John Reynolds defeated former state party chairman (and 1960 GOP nominee) Philip Kuehn by less than 12,000 votes (0.9 points) with John Kennedy in the White House.

Republicans have fared only slightly better, winning the governor’s mansion only 33 percent of the time with a GOPer in the Oval Office (four of 12 races):

  • 1954 (Dwight Eisenhower): Two-term Governor Walter Kohler, Jr. beat former state assemblyman and 1952 nominee William Proxmire by 3.1 points in a rematch election
  • 1956 (Eisenhower): Attorney General Vernon Thomson defeated Proxmire by 3.8 points
  • 1986 (Ronald Reagan): State Assemblyman Tommy Thompson unseated Governor Tony Earl by 6.5 points
  • 1990 (George H.W. Bush): Governor Thompson won a second term with a 16.4-point win over Assemblyman Tom Loftus

Wisconsin’s decades-long tradition of being a gubernatorial naysayer plus lackluster approval ratings for both Governor Walker and Donald Trump in the state would appear to put Democrats in a strong position to pick up the seat this cycle.

However, there are two factors working in Walker’s favor heading into 2018.

First, the Democratic field is currently so overcrowded with candidates that it is possible the winning nominee will have to spend a significant amount of money prior to his or her general election campaign.

One would expect Democrats to eventually settle on three-term Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers – the only announced candidate who has previously won a statewide race.

Secondly, gubernatorial incumbents have notched a decent record at the ballot box over the decades in Wisconsin – winning 36 of 51 elections since statehood, or 70.6 percent of the time. [Three of these losing incumbents – all Republicans – were defeated during the primary: Fred Zimmerman in 1928 to Walter Kohler, Sr., Kohler in 1930 to Philip La Follette, and La Follette in 1932 to Kohler].

However, incumbents have only two recorded wins in eight attempts since 1932 when their party runs the White House: Kohler in 1954 and Thompson in 1990.

La Follette (1932), Democrat Albert Schmedeman (1934), Republican Vernon Thompson (1958), Democrat John Reynolds (1964), Democrat Martin Schreiber (1978), and Republican Scott McCallum (2002) all came up short.

Smart Politics is the non-partisan political news site founded and authored by Dr. Eric Ostermeier at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

15 thoughts on “Smart Politics: History Gives Walker Slim Odds to Win”

  1. Ted Chisholm says:

    Incumbency definitely provides an advantage in Wisconsin. If you don’t count temporary officeholders like McCallum, we haven’t unseated a previously-elected governor since 1986. Milwaukee hasn’t voted out a previously-elected mayor since 1940, and the county hasn’t voted out an executive since 1988.

  2. Terry says:

    Greasy Career Politician Scott Walker has slithered, slimed and oozed his way out of a lot of tricky and troubling places before. Don’t be bamboozled again Sconnies. If all y’all in Wississipi don’t wake up soon, Greasy Career Politician Scott Walker could become “Governor for Life.”

    Don’t let it happen.

    Dump Walker 2018

  3. Troll says:

    The Democratic candidate makes a difference. I see two legitimate candidate mahlon Mitchell and vinehout. Every one else is climbing a hill.

  4. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    In fairness, Walker’s chronic dishonesty and general corrupt sleaziness along with Wisconsin’s subpar job growth and pothole-filled roads are bigger reasons why he is unlikely to win.

    And given the way Scotty is flailing about in desperation these days, I think he knows it. Getting a real job scares the daylights out of Governor Dropout.

  5. max says:

    Every US Intelligence official, past and present, has documented and warned about Russian interference in USA elections, whether in the form of spreading disinformation, stealing voting roles, and worse. Did the author factor this into the equation as Walker, unpopular as he is, proudly supports Trump, who constantly is defending Russia’s war on American democracy?

  6. Judy says:

    I think we are going to prove “history” wrong!

  7. old baldy says:

    “If he is victorious in 2018, Walker will tie Wisconsin’s record of four gubernatorial victories joining fellow Republican Tommy Thompson.”

    New math??

  8. PMD says:

    I got blasted for saying this before, but who is going to be able to beat Walker? I still don’t see how any of the 84 Dems running beats Walker in a statewide election. They lack the name recognition and funding capabilities that will be essential to beating an incumbent able to raise tons of money.

  9. Terry says:

    @PMD, You don’t need name recognition when the opposing name is Walker. That’s right, greasy, scheming Career Politician Scott Walker. That’s all freedom loving people need to know. Vote for the other person. Career Politician Scott Walker is as greasy and crooked as they come folks. Career Politician Scott Walker has never worked a day in his adult life in the “free market.” He’s been too busy mooching off the Big Government dole for 25 years. It’s time this charlatan got a “real job!”

    Dump Walker 2018

  10. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    PMD- Walker already has 48-49% of voters that want him gone. A lot less are going to go out of their way to have him stick around. Scotty is in “negative coattails” territory right now.

    He wouldn’t be flailing so badly and backpedaling on past positions if he wasn’t losing. As long as the Den candidate can walk, chew gum, not be a crook and be remotely coherent, he/she will have a great chance to boot Gov Dropout. And the candidate who wins the Dem primary will likely be well above that low bar.

  11. MKE Kid says:

    old baldy: I believe UW is including the Koch party…er, I mean “recall election.”

  12. Adam says:


    The way the usually disciplined and uniform message from Walker has flip-flopped and gone democrat in the last 2 months would suggest he knows he is in trouble. 47% of the electorate voted against Walker each election. This 47% despises the man and will vote against him no matter what. A third party candidate accounts for 1-2% of the vote each election, so only 2% of the electorate needs to stay home, or switch votes, or a larger turnout from people that have not voted in the past. I would think the sea change from anti-Obama to anti-Trump sentiment alone can cover this gap.
    Walker certainly has incumbency and money is his favor, but it may not matter in the end. His defeat may already be baked in.

  13. PMD says:

    Yes his flip-flops and his comments about the special election show he is worried. And he is very vulnerable, no doubt. I don’t think it’s impossible to defeat him. I just think it’s going to be very difficult and is far from the sure thing some seem to think it is. Incumbency and money are no small things. I also remain skeptical of the Dems running. Who is starting from a stronger place than Barrett circa 2010? Couldn’t this be 2014 all over again?

  14. Adam says:


    2010 was the red wave- Barrett or any Democrat was doomed in that election. 2014 there was no real DEM primary, Mary Burke was anointed by the party, a giant mistake that repeated itself in the 2016 presidential election.
    This time voters will get to chose the candidate. A candidate that should be properly vetted by the time they make it through to the general. With Burke, the REP party was already broadsiding her with attacks by this time in that election. With no clear front runner today, there are just too many people for the REP to make a concerted attack on any one candidate at this point.

  15. PMD says:

    Too many people for now, but that will change. I fear people are overconfident and somewhat blinded by their hatred of Walker (a sentiment I share for the record). When you look at all those candidates, who excites you? Who causes you to say “now there is someone who can excite the base and win over independents/moderates and raise money and get the voters out and defeat an incumbent in a statewide election.”

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