After Ryan, Dems Eye Walker

 David Catanese

RANDY BRYCE FIRST HEARD of House Speaker Paul Ryan's retirement plans as he flipped on cable news at home on his way to his morning shower.

The Democratic challenger to Ryan in Wisconsin had heard the rumors before but needed to see it to believe it.

"So it took awhile to take a shower," Bryce says.

Needless to say, the chances of Bryce capturing the 1st Congressional District have jumped substantially with Ryan headed to the exits. "The ship is sinking and he's one of the last to get off," Bryce says.

But Ryan's political earthquake followed a series of developments in the Badger State that already screamed trouble for Republicans in 2018.

Earlier this month, Democrat Rebecca Dallet swept to a breezy 12-point statewide victory for a 10-year term on the state Supreme Court, marking the first time in more than two decades that a non-incumbent liberal had won such a seat.

And in January, Democrat Patty Schachtner picked off a state Senate seat in northwest Wisconsin that Republicans had held since 2001. Her margin was almost 11 points.

All the while, GOP Gov. Scott Walker has been sounding the alarm, deeming the state Senate result a "WAKE UP CALL," and warning of a "BlueWave" in Wisconsin following the Supreme Court race.

It's pretty clear why. Walker, seeking a third term in November, is likely facing his most arduous electoral challenge to date. And that's saying something, given the unprecedented recall election effort that he staved off in 2012.

The Republican Governors Association has earmarked $5.1 million to protect Walker with fall television advertisements, with the Wisconsin governor receiving 35 percent of the group's most recent batch of investments.

And Walker's Democratic opponent is anything but settled. At least nine notable names are competing for the Democratic nomination, but the field lacks a sterling standout.

State schools Superintendent Tony Evers is the best known initially. But other viable contenders include Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the state's firefighters union.

Walker's been able to showcase an unemployment rate that has plummeted to just 2.9 percent – an all-time low in the state and one of the best in the country.

Also benefiting Walker is Wisconsin's late primary, which isn't held until Aug. 14, leaving the Democrats most of the summer to battle among themselves before they can fully train their sights on him.

Nevertheless, Walker's numbers aren't good. His approval rating stands at just 43 percent, according to a new Morning Consult survey, placing him in the bottom 10 governors in the country. Walker was diminished following the unceremonious end to his 2016 presidential campaign and he might be suffering from voter fatigue as the Wisconsin electorate sniffs around for something new.

Given the series of events in Wisconsin, it's easy to read why Democrats feel emboldened about their prospects of taking back the governorship. Taking over Ryan's 1st Congressional District would be an impressive feat, but upending Walker would essentially amount to an end of a conservative era that dawned during the rise of the tea party.

"Republicans have been trying to shred working people in this state, ever since Gov. Walker came into power through gerrymandering of the districts, through voter suppression and just passing horrible legislation," Bryce says.

But before they can get to Walker, there's another chance for a "wake-up" call in June.

That's when two special legislative elections will be held for a pair of vacant seats in the state Senate and assembly. Walker initially said he would not call for the elections, dubbing them an unnecessary cost for the state.

But an appeals court dealt him another blow, ordering him to do so.

"He knows that Republicans can lose both of these historically red seats, so he tried to leave them vacant for almost a year," said David Nir, political director for the liberal Daily Kos. "But the rule of law prevailed, and now Walker has two candidates to fear in these specials. Walker has repeatedly told the world how panicked he is about 2018, and for once, he's right – he and his fellow Badger State Republicans should be extremely nervous."

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