Last week, the current Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes announced he is going to be seeking the Democratic nomination for the state’s Senate seat. Wisconsin Senate odds have adjusted to the news.
The race – one of three Senate races Democrats are heavily targeting in 2022 – has been thrust into the spotlight.
It’s a good excuse to dig into the PredictIt market for the race, and see whether the market provides any value.
Wisconsin Senate Odds: Party To Win 2022 Election
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Wisconsin is one of five states that voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. It was the third closest race of 2020, closer than Pennsylvania and Michigan but a slightly wider margin than Arizona and Georgia.
The state has voted for Democrats at five of the last six Presidential elections, but that statistic undersells its competitiveness – the 2000, 2004, 2016, and 2020 elections in Wisconsin were all decided by less than 1%. Even 2018, a very good Democratic year in the aggregate, saw Democrats only win the governorship by less than 2%. For those inclined to point to that Senate race that year, which Democrats won handily, the GOP never seriously contested the race, and using that as a baseline would be extremely misleading. This is all to say, this race being close is definitely reasonable.
Go through the likely party nominees, however, and you see a bit of a different picture.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out more of our election betting coverage as the number of candidates for the midterm elections in 2022 grow.
Wisconsin Senate: Democratic Primary Odds
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Barnes is the overwhelming favorite to win the primary on the Democratic side. He is the most high-profile elected official in the race. His announcement into the race came just weeks after it was reported that Ron Kind, the other candidate heavily recruited by Democrats, was probably going to be running for his House seat again.
I’m going to be blunt. Barnes doesn’t run if he thinks he has to worry about Kind, which means Kind isn’t running.
Barnes is a popular politician with the Black community and would be a very good candidate in Milwaukee, where Democrats slipped in 2020 compared to 2016. Getting back to Clinton (or even better, Obama) levels of support and turnout amongst African-Americans is an easy way to boost the cushion Democrats have. Barnes is the highest ranking African-American ever elected statewide in Wisconsin. He would be a good candidate to pull off the trick.
Boosting Black turnout in Milwaukee and running up the score in Madison is the game plan, and Barnes gives you a good chance to pull off that trick.
Wisconsin Senate: Republican Primary Odds
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On the other side, the identity of the next GOP nominee is less well known, as incumbent Senator Ron Johnson dithers on a decision about his candidacy. He is not raising very much money, but he is a wealthy Senator that could still self fund to a large degree.
If he announces he is seeking another term, it is unlikely he would face a serious primary challenge, but if he doesn’t run, Mike Gallagher starts that primary as a heavy favorite. Gallagher is a Congressman with ambition, and he would be a credible conservative voice with both institutional backing and a lot of money if he should seek the nomination.
The GOP’s problem is that both Gallagher and Johnson are damaged goods, in a sense.
Johnson has made a series of crass remarks in recent months, from saying that he wasn’t scared on January 6th as the rioters attacked the Capitol because they were patriots. He also said he would have been scared had it been Antifa or Black Lives Matter. Johnson then said that the COVID-19 vaccines should have only been made available in a “limited” rollout.
These comments may make for red meat for the base but are politically damaging with suburbanites and centrists.
Gallagher, on the other hand, is a staunch conservative with the voting record to back that up. He voted with former President Donald Trump almost 90% of the time, and Gallagher even voted against the original COVID-19 relief package in March 2020, being one of only 40 members to do so. Gallagher’s vote against could be a huge problem, if Democrats try to point to all the good various government supports have done for the residents of Wisconsin.
The way both parties win in Wisconsin comes down to two areas – the southwest of the state, which is becoming increasingly Republican friendly, and the Milwaukee suburbs, which are becoming increasingly Democratic as time goes on.
The way you win is by holding the line in your descendant area and by doing better in your ascendant area. Donald Trump won in 2016 by doing just well enough in the Milwaukee suburbs while doing really well in the southwest, whereas Biden won in 2020 by doing just well enough in the southwest of the state and doing much better in the Milwaukee suburbs.
All else being equal, Democrats are going to be running a candidate with less obvious flaws than the GOP, whether Republicans nominate Johnson or Gallagher. In a state Biden won, that should be enough to declare them the favorites.
Throw in the fact that Wisconsin is a state full of voters who didn’t vote in 2018 but did vote in 2020 – and those voters broke overwhelmingly for Trump – and you’d say that the GOP are underdogs, all else being equal.
There may be a question about how an African-American nominee would play in the (wealthy, white) suburbs, but we got as close to a natural experiment as we’ll ever get about the role of candidate race on electability in Georgia in January. Raphael Warnock did better than Jon Ossoff across the wealthy white suburbs and exurbs of Atlanta.
The reason I keep saying all else being equal, of course, is because this is a midterm election. Traditionally, the President’s party gets smashed in midterms. Yes, the GOP won four Democratic held Senate seats in 2018, but he did lose Arizona and Nevada. The seats the GOP won (with the exception of Florida) were in blood-red states, which Wisconsin certainly isn’t for Democrats.
If you believe in the midterm penalty continuing, then the GOP have a very good chance to win the seat. The thing is, I don’t. The GOP have a big problem in Wisconsin, and as of right now, no easy answer to solving it.