COLUMBUS, Wisconsin (TBEN) — Sarah Motiff has voted for Senator Ron Johnson every time his name appeared on the ballot, starting in 2010 when the Wisconsin Republican was first elected as part of the tea party wave. She loved his tough take on spending and started the year with plans to support his reelection again.
She became skeptical this summer when the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 Capitol uprising reported that his office was discussing giving then-Vice President Mike Pence certificates with false presidential voters for Donald Trump of Wisconsin and Michigan, as part of wider push to topple Joe Biden’s victory. Johnson downplayed the effort and the certificates were never given to Pence, but Motiff, a political independent, was unconvinced.
“I’m not going to lie when I say I’m concerned about some of the reports that have come out,” said the 52-year-old impartial councilor from Columbus, Wisconsin. “It just left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Further spurred on by the June Supreme Court decision invalidating a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, Motiff opposes Johnson and backs his Democratic challenger, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, in one of the most hotly contested Senate races. from this year.
“That was a really hard decision for me because I think he’s done good things in the past,” Motiff said of Johnson. “But this is quite harmful.”
Motiff’s evolution poses challenges to Republicans emerging from a tumultuous summer defined by the court ruling, high-profile hearings into former President Donald Trump’s actions during the insurgency, and intensified legal scrutiny of his handling of classified information and efforts. to cancel the election. Now, a midterm campaign that the GOP hoped would be a referendum on President Joe Biden and the economy is threatening to become a comparison between the two parties, leaving Republicans in an unexpectedly defensive position.
In politically divided Wisconsin, where the recent election was decided by a few thousand votes, the outcome could depend on self-proclaimed independent voters like Motiff.
“The fact that former President Trump is so prominent in the news in so many ways makes it easier for Democrats to view the midterm as a choice between two competing futures rather than a referendum on Democrat governance,” he said. Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “That hurts. Republicans. It distracts from the message of the referendum and ensures that more attention is paid to the choice between two different parties.”
That tension is set in Columbia County, Wisconsin, a constellation of neat little towns surrounded by rolling dairy farms, all within commuting distance of Madison.
Statewide, top candidates have won by barely a percentage point in the past three elections. Trump won Columbia County by just over 500 votes out of 33,000 votes cast in 2020.
In interviews with more than a dozen independent voters here over two days last week, many reconsidered their support for the GOP this fall.
Steve Gray, who described himself as an independent “but never a Trump fan,” opposed the June court ruling because he is a proponent of abortion rights. But the 61-year-old school maintenance manager also hated what he saw as an unwelcome political power play by out-of-power Republicans.
“Trump piled up the Supreme Court. We all knew he wanted to overthrow Roe,” said Gray of the small town of Rio, where Trump won by two votes in 2020. “That decision was a partisan hand grenade that Trump threw in this election.”
The court’s ruling “has turned the physics of midterm elections on its head,” said Jesse Stinebring, a pollster who advises several Democratic campaigns.
It gave voters the rare opportunity to rate a policy progress supported by the minority party, and distracted them from a clean vote on majority Democrats, he said.
“The resistance from a political perspective is not aimed at the traditional party in power, but has actually been reformulated in terms of this Republican control of the Supreme Court,” Stinebring said.
The decision made Dilaine Noel’s vote automatic.
The 29-year-old director of data analytics for a Madison company said she was never affiliated with either party.
Despite her grievances about the warring moderate and liberal wings of Democrats, her support for abortion rights this fall gave her no choice but to vote for the party’s candidates.
“By default, I have to go in that direction,” said Noel, from the small town of Poynette in the Wisconsin River valley. “I am forced to do it.”
Mary Percifield is a lifelong independent voter who says the abortion decision motivated her to vote Democratic because she fears the court would overturn other rights.
“We have had a right taken away,” said the 68-year-old customer service representative from Pardeeville. “I wonder if a woman’s right to vote will be taken away. A woman’s right to contraception.”
According to TBEN VoteCast, independent voters who lean neither Democratic nor Republican nationally preferred Biden over Trump, 52% to 37% in 2020, and preferred Democrats over Republicans in US House races by a similar margin in the 2018 midterm elections. Independents leaning neither Democratic nor Republican made up 5% of the 2020 electorate and 12% in 2018.
Independents had moved to Republicans early this year, seeking answers to the economy, said Republican pollster David Winston, a senior adviser to House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy. But they have pushed back toward Democrats as GOP leaders’ efforts to focus on the economy have clashed with Republican attacks on the Justice Department and Trump’s ongoing complaints about the 2020 election.
“Everything is suddenly back in the context of Trump,” Winston said in light of Trump’s prominent endorsement of Senate candidates and protests against the federal investigation into classified documents recovered from his Florida home. “It’s not like the Democrats are winning. It’s that the Republicans talked about different things over the summer. And independents think, ‘If you’re not specifically talking about the issues I’m concerned about, why am I listening?’”
Republicans remain optimistic about their chances in November, especially about securing the handful of seats they need to regain the majority of the US House. Inflation remains high and despite a recent rise, Biden’s approval is still low for a party hoping to retain power.
The economy remains the most effective message and one that breaks through others, GOP campaign officials say.
“Prices and things are so obvious to people,” said Calvin Moore, the communications director for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a superPAC that supports Republican candidates for the U.S. House. “It’s not just something that’s on the news. It’s something they experience every day in their daily lives. It’s something they face every day when they go to the supermarket.”
A shift by independents makes particular sense in Wisconsin, as Republicans work to overtake the Democratic majority of one seat in the Senate.
Johnson, one of the most vulnerable Republicans to run for reelection this fall, is engaged in an exciting race with Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor Barnes. Of the most competitive Senate seats this year, he is the only one to be held by a Republican.
Although Johnson dismissed testimonials about false voters as personnel work that never reached him, it reminded Christian Wood, an independent voter from Lodi, of Johnson’s opposition to approving the election before January 6. Johnson turned off course after the riots.
“It’s absolutely scary,” said Wood, who has often voted Republican. “To me, that is the most existential threat to our democracy. And to think he’s even considering it makes him a non-starter.”
There’s time for an economics message to win, but that requires news about Trump’s disappearance, GOP pollster Ayres said.
Meanwhile, Trump has a full schedule of fall campaign travel for candidates he’s approved.
“Any distraction from that focus undermines the best Republican message,” he said.
The Bharat Express News writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow TBEN for full coverage of the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and on Twitter, https://twitter.com/ap_politics