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Republicans get a 'wake-up call' in pro-Trump Wisconsin district

As we saw overnight in Wisconsin, Democrats keep winning in districts where Donald Trump prevailed in 2016. If the GOP isn't feeling anxiety, it should be.
Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.
Protesters gather outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

Democrats fared quite well in special elections in 2017, and as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  reported overnight, the party appears to be starting 2018 on the right foot, too.

Democrats snagged a GOP-leaning state Senate seat in western Wisconsin on Tuesday, buoying progressive hopes that they could ride a wave of victory this fall.Patty Schachtner, the chief medical examiner for St. Croix County, will take the seat that had been held for 17 years by former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls). Harsdorf stepped down in November to take a job as GOP Gov. Scott Walker's agriculture secretary.

As a legislative matter, the Democratic candidate's surprise win has a limited impact: Republicans still control all of the levers of power in the Badger State, including an 18-14 advantage in the state Senate.

But that doesn't make yesterday's upset any less dramatic. This is a gerrymandered district, where voters backed Donald Trump by 17 points -- Mitt Romney won here by six points -- featuring a GOP candidate who received quite a bit of financial support from the right, including Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin.

In other words, this is a race Republicans should have won without breaking a sweat -- and yet the Dem won easily. Gov. Scott Walker (R) called it a "wake-up call" for his party ahead of the 2018 elections, when he'll be seeking a third term.

And while that's true, it's the broader pattern that reverberates beyond Wisconsin. Since Trump's election, Democrats have now flipped 34 state legislative districts, according to a tally from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

As we've discussed before, the typical response from GOP partisans is to focus on the congressional special elections, where Republican candidates have had far more success this year.

It's a fair point, but I'm still inclined to disagree. There have been five U.S. House special elections so far this year, and Republicans have won four of them (Donald Trump has repeatedly said the GOP went "five for five," but that's demonstrably wrong.) And while losing is certainly worse than winning for a party, I continue to take a different lesson from those four races: in each of these contests, Democrats ran first-time candidates in ruby-red districts, and in every instance, these Dems exceeded expectations and forced Republicans to scramble to secure narrow victories.

And then, of course, there was a certain U.S. Senate special election in Alabama, which didn't exactly go Republicans' way.

If GOP officials are looking at these results and not feeling anxiety, they're not paying close enough attention.

After winning in Wisconsin, Patty Schachtner was asked whether her success may be a bad sign for Republicans elsewhere. "It certainly could be," she said.