Wisconsin is now considered the most politically polarized state in the country.
Gov. Scott Walker’s approval rating from Republican voters was 92% in a Wisconsin survey last month by Public Policy Polling.
His approval rating from Democratic voters was 9%.
Invert those two numbers and you get something very close to President Barack Obama’s ratings in Wisconsin: 93% approval from Democrats, 4% approval from Republicans.
In both cases, the partisan divide is bigger than anything Public Policy Polling has recorded for governor and president in the 40-plus states where it has polled since 2011.
To date, there are no candidates who have announced a challenge to Gov. Scott Walker, who is up for re-election in November, 2014. That is not terribly surprising given his convincing victory in last year’s recall election and the daunting task of raising enough money to run an effective campaign against him.
However, Senator Ron Johnson does not have the popularity that Gov. Walker enjoys. The most recent Marquette Law School poll shows Senator Johnson with a mere 30% approval rating, leading the state’s largest newspaper to opine that he will have a tough re-election campaign in 2016. There are many reasons for his low rating, but certainly one of them is that he is considered the second most conservative Senator in the US Senate. Given that Wisconsin just elected the very liberal Tammy Baldwin to the US Senate, that certainly does not bode well for Senator Johnson.
Given Sen. Johnson’s lack of popularity in his own state, it is quite surprising that there have been no official announcements of any Democratic candidates who plan to run against him. This could be a symptom of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s dysfunction given that it is poised to re-elect its party chair despite its failure to recall Gov. Walker and continuing losses in the state legislature giving Republicans majorities in both houses for two terms in a row (other than a brief lame duck period when the Democrats held a majority in the Senate due to recalls, which they gave up in November, 2012).
The combined factors of Sen. Johnson’s extreme conservative views, lack of popularity in his home state, and a dysfunctional Democratic party in Wisconsin beg the question of whether an independent candidate could gain the next US Senate seat in Wisconsin. Needless to say, given that the 2012 US Senate race in Wisconsin was the 7th most expensive race in the country with over $35 million spent in that race, raising sufficient funds without the benefit of party machinery in the era of Citizens United is certainly daunting.
But can it be done?
It has been done elsewhere, and in fact, the November 2012 election saw 2 US Senators win as Independents. Bernie Sanders was re-elected as an Independent in Vermont, which isn’t terribly surprising given that he held the US House seat in Vermont since 1991.
Perhaps more important was the victory of Independent Angus King in Maine, who is now the first Independent Senator from Maine in a state where the previous Senator was Republican Olympia Snowe.
Ultimately, whether an Independent can win a US Senate seat in Wisconsin in 2016, depends on 3 critical factors:
- The popularity of the eventual Democratic candidate;
- The popularity of the Independent candidate; and
- The ability of the Independent candidate to raise sufficient funds.
Since we are now living in an era where extremely wealthy people like Michael Bloomberg and George Soros can pour millions into such an Independent campaign, such a decision by influential wealthy donors could create a dynamic to make Wisconsin the state to seat a 3rd Independent candidate in the U.S. Senate in 2016.