Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
How Democrats aim to claim Scott Walker’s home turf
WAUWATOSA - Two teenagers approach the corner of 68th and Lloyd streets and wait for traffic to crawl west. A man on the other side takes his daughter’s small red backpack and slings it over his shoulder as they shuffle home.
School’s out in mid-September and the sidewalks of the east side of Wauwatosa are filling with parents and children. No one looks older than 45.
It’s in these canopied streets full of bungalows and baby strollers where Democrats found a foothold in the most conservative area of Wisconsin. And on this Wednesday afternoon, six of them were inside one of the pre-World War II era homes planning ways to keep it.
“I want somebody who I feel will actually love the people they are serving,” Elizabeth Newpauer said sitting at a dining room table with her state Rep. Robyn Vining and five other women who helped Vining, a Democrat, get elected to a seat that had been held by Republicans for decades.
“It’s not just love of country — it’s love of the people in the country as well,” she said as the group discussed issues they want to see in the forefront of the 2020 presidential election — and
Vining’s re-election bid.
Newpauer, 30 and pregnant with her second child, is herself an embodiment of the shifting attitudes in the district she lives in. Born in Kansas, she said she voted Republican all her life and considered herself an evangelical Christian.
But in 2016, Donald Trump’s bullying rhetoric pushed her to vote for a Democrat for president and, two years later, to help Vining narrowly win her seat in an election that would signal to Republicans the always reliable Milwaukee suburbs might be drifting.
Wisconsin’s 14th Assembly District spans parts of Waukesha and Milwaukee counties and includes Brookfield and Wauwatosa — suburban areas with higher rates of college-educated residents and home to a number of corporations.
Once held by Wisconsin conservative icon Scott Walker and other lawmakers who support heavy restrictions on abortion access and fewer rules for gun owners, the seat is now held by one whose views on such issues are directly opposite.
“As people keep swinging in and ask how we won, how we flipped a seat, I’m reminded it wasn’t just me — it’s a we. And I am reminded that more than anything it was us showing up on doorsteps and just listening,” Vining said at the September meeting. “The way we talk to each other — public discourse will matter in 2020.”
State Sen. Dale Kooyenga, a Republican who lives in Brookfield, held the seat Vining now represents for six years until he was elected to the Senate in 2018.
His last Assembly election night was in 2016, when he topped his Democratic challenger by 15 points. A wide margin, but Kooyenga had earned a smaller share of votes than some of his GOP colleagues in more rural areas who had once envied the safety of Kooyenga’s seat.
“The night of the election — the results started coming in and I remember really just scratching my head and having a moment of self reflection and saying, ‘What are we doing wrong?’” Kooyenga said in an interview.
But a closer look also revealed he had outperformed the top of the ticket. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had won his district by 4 points.
Just four years before, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had won it over Democratic President Barack Obama by 14 points.
“We went from what are we doing wrong to wow, what are we doing right?” Kooyenga said about election night in 2016.
Part of the change in the district is demographics, he said. Wauwatosa especially is getting younger and more diverse.
“I think the other 50 percent of it is the Republican Party has changed, too,” Kooyenga said.
“Wauwatosa has been in the recent years a community where it’s been very desirable and often it’s the younger families that are buying in but not always the case,” Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehlers said. “There’s absolutely shifts going on and I do think it shows in the way the elections are turning out.”
In their politics, Kooyenga and Vining are different. But both are similar in demographics: both are married with families, hold advanced college degrees, are white and in their early 40s.
The Trump hurdles
Kooyenga said Trump produces hurdles for the GOP in two areas: families and trade policy.
“The Republican Party that suburban women in Brookfield were more comfortable associating with is a party of family values,” Kooyenga said. “I don’t think Trump has a monopoly over family values over any of the Democratic candidates.”
Companies like Briggs & Stratton, a small engine manufacturer based in Wauwatosa, also have been hurt by Trump’s tariffs, too, he said.
Democrats targeted the Senate seat Kooyenga won in 2018, recognizing the shift in the area’s politics. The race was close and Kooyenga beat his Democratic challenger by 2 points.
“I think the district respected that we don’t toe party lines,” he said.
Vining campaigned on health care
Vining is a 42-year-old mother of two who owns her own photography
business and got into her race with a message focused on health care — an issue that helped elect a number of Democrats in 2018 when Vining was elected.
“I had never knocked a door before,” Vining said about her race. “We’ve always tried to have the campaign come out of what we’re about versus shoving us into here’s-what-a-campaign-is box.”
In one campaign ad, Vining told viewers her health insurance provider dropped her coverage when she became pregnant with her first child, calling the pregnancy a pre-existing condition to the date at which her coverage began.
She said she and her husband chose not to have a third child after being unable to find health care after he lost his job and not being able to create enough profit in her own business to pay for coverage.
Health care is again an issue Democrats are planning to focus on in Vining’s district.
“Her district represents one of Trump’s greatest vulnerabilities in the 2020 election and is a linchpin for the future of the Republican Party,” Democratic Party of Wisconsin chairman Ben Wikler said in an interview. “As far as we’re concerned, the general election has already started there.”
Wikler said Democrats plan to focus on the president and health care, but also on state Republicans’ views on gun laws.
“A lot of folks in the suburbs like didn’t expect their kids to do active shooter drills in their elementary schools,” Wikler said.
District is a GOP priority
A Republican candidate hasn’t yet emerged to challenge Vining, but Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said the seat is a major target in the 2020 legislative races.
Vos said he thinks voters in 2020 will see Vining as too closely tied to Madison Democrats.
“Voters in Robyn Vining’s district thought they voted for an independent voice. What they got was a rubber stamp for Madison liberals,” he said in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “She has voted against common sense measures like requiring welfare recipients to work to receive benefits. She’s turned out to be just another Madison liberal.”
Vos wants to create a supermajority in the Assembly to be able to override Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ vetoes.
With this in mind, Wiker said, Democrats were knocking on doors on Saturday in mid-September — more than a year before the election.
A spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin did not respond to a request for an interview with party leaders about the party’s strategy to flip the district back to the GOP’s side.