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Barrett vs. Walker II: A History of Wisconsin Gubernatorial Rematch Elections

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Losing gubernatorial candidates have come back for rematches against victorious Republicans and beat them two times out of the six rematches in Wisconsin history

tombarrett10.jpgTom Barrett's victory Tuesday in Wisconsin's Democratic primary for the state's June 5th gubernatorial recall election sets up a rematch against the state's controversial Republican governor Scott Walker who defeated him by 5.8 points in November 2010.

And while next month will mark the first recall election for governor in state history, there have been several rematches across the 72 gubernatorial contests conducted over the last 160+ years since statehood.

Challengers have won one-third of them.

A Smart Politics review of Wisconsin gubernatorial election data finds that major party candidates have landed rematches six times, with the loser of the first battle gaining ground in five contests and coming back to win on two of these occasions.

Each of these instances involved a Republican governor or ex-governor going up against a previously vanquished opponent.

Rematch #1: Nicholas Fratt vs. Governor Jeremiah Rusk

The first gubernatorial election rematch occurred during the elections of 1881 and 1884 with Republican Jeremiah Rusk on defense.

Rusk, who would later become the nation's Secretary of Agriculture, was first elected governor in 1881 when he defeated Democrat Nicholas Fratt by 7.0 points with a plurality 47.6 percent in a four-candidate field in which Prohibition and Greenback candidates netted over 11 percent collectively.

Three years later in 1884 (after the Badger State changed its general election cycles to end in even-numbered years), Rusk successfully fended off Fratt's challenge, winning by 6.0 points with 51.0 percent of the vote in a four-candidate race.

Rematch #2: John Aylward vs. Governor James Davidson

The next rematch occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century with the election of Republican James Davidson in 1906.

As Lieutenant Governor, Davidson had succeeded Wisconsin's most famous politician, Robert La Follette, in the governor's mansion earlier that year after the future presidential candidate took his U.S. Senate seat in D.C.

Davidson then defeated Democrat John Aylward to win the governor's seat outright, by a decisive 25.1-point margin with 57.4 percent of the vote in a five-candidate field.

Aylward was able to shave off eight points in his 1908 rematch against Davidson, but the Republican governor easily won by 17.1 points with 54.0 percent of the vote in a five-candidate field.

Rematch #3: Albert Schmedeman vs. former Governor Walter Kohler, Sr.

The third instance of a gubernatorial rematch departs from the narrative outlined above.

In 1928, businessman Walter Kohler, Sr. defeated Democrat and former U.S. Minister to Norway Albert Schmedeman by 15.5 points with 55.4 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field.

Kohler then lost his primary bid against Philip La Follette (son of Robert) in 1930 only to come back and defeat Governor La Follette in the 1932 primary.

Schmedeman also was victorious in the Democratic primary that year, and thus a Kohler-Schmedeman rematch was born in an open-seat race.

Only this time Schmedeman won, by 10.6 points, defeating Kohler with 52.5 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field.

The victory marked a 26.1-point turnaround for Schmedeman from four years prior.

Rematch #4: Orland Loomis vs. Governor Julius Heil

Just eight years later the first battle in what would become the state's second successful rematch took place with a bizarre ending.

In 1940, one-term GOP incumbent Julius Heil won a second term by a narrow 0.9-point margin against Progressive Orland Loomis with just 40.7 percent of the vote in a five-candidate field in which Democrat Francis McGovern won only 19.3 percent.

Loomis was a former state assemblyman and senator and was the former state Attorney General.

Loomis challenged Heil again when the governor sought a third term in 1942, with the Progressive winning this time - by 13.2-points with 49.6 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field.

However, Loomis died a month after Election Day and never took office.

Lieutenant Governor - Republican Walter Goodland who was elected separately - was appointed acting governor by the Wisconsin Supreme Court at the end of Heil's term in January 1943.

As a result, Republicans lost the rematch, but retained the seat.

But Goodland would shortly find himself in a rematch situation...

Rematch #5: Daniel Hoan vs. Governor Walter Goodland

After coming to the end of nearly a full term for an office to which he was not elected, Goodland ran for a second term in 1944.

He was elected outright to the office by 12.2 points over Democrat Daniel Hoan with 52.8 percent of the vote in a five-candidate field.

Hoan returned to the fold in 1946, but lost ground and was defeated by Goodland by 20.7 points in a five-candidate field, 59.8 percent to 39.1 percent.

This is the only instance in which a challenger came back and performed worse than he did the first time around.

Rematch #6: William Proxmire vs. Governor Walter Kohler, Jr.

The last gubernatorial rematch occurred a few cycles later and involved the son of a former governor.

In a bid for his second term, Republican Governor Walter Kohler, Jr. ran against future Democratic U.S. Senator William Proxmire in a 25.2-point landslide in 1952 in a three-candidate field tallying 62.5 percent of the vote.

Proxmire nearly pulled off a victorious rematch against Kohler two years later, but lost by 3.1-points in a three-candidate field, 51.5 percent to 48.4 percent.

(Proxmire would also narrowly lose his third straight gubernatorial general election in 1956, in an open seat race against Republican Vernon Thompson by 3.8 points).

Rematch #7: Tom Barrett vs. Governor Scott Walker

And as for the seventh gubernatorial rematch in Badger State history?

The national media will no doubt have a feeding frenzy over the myriad of story lines emerging in Wisconsin over the next month, such as the role of money in politics (Walker currently has a fundraising advantage of more than 25:1 over Barrett), the alleged excesses of Tea Party-backed officeholders if Walker should lose, and the recall election as a bellwether for the November presidential election both in this battleground state and beyond.

The rematch ends a 58-year drought since the last gubernatorial rematch in Wisconsin - the longest such stretch in state history - after averaging one rematch out of every 11.7 years from 1884 to 1954.

With the Barrett-Walker contest next month, a total of seven of the state's 73 gubernatorial elections have been rematches - or about one out of every 10.

Gubernatorial Rematch Elections in Wisconsin History

Year
Incumbent
Party
%
Challenger
Party
%
MoV
1881
Jeremiah Rusk
GOP
47.6
Nicholas Fratt
Democrat
40.6
7.0
1884
Jeremiah Rusk
GOP
51.0
Nicholas Fratt
Democrat
45.0
6.0
1906
James Davidson
GOP
57.4
John Aylward
Democrat
32.3
25.1
1908
James Davidson
GOP
54.0
John Aylward
Democrat
36.9
17.1
1928
Walter Kohler, Sr.
GOP
55.4
Albert Schmedeman
Democrat
39.9
15.5
1932
Walter Kohler, Sr.*
GOP
41.9
Albert Schmedeman
Democrat
52.5
10.6
1940
Julius Heil
GOP
40.7
Orland Loomis
Progressive
39.8
0.9
1942
Julius Heil
GOP
36.4
Orland Loomis**
Progressive
49.6
13.2
1944
Walter Goodland
GOP
52.8
Daniel Hoan
Democrat
40.6
12.2
1946
Walter Goodland
GOP
59.8
Daniel Hoan
Democrat
39.1
20.7
1952
Walter Kohler, Jr.
GOP
62.5
William Proxmire
Democrat
37.3
25.2
1954
Walter Kohler, Jr.
GOP
51.5
William Proxmire
Democrat
48.4
3.1
* Walter Kohler, Sr. was not an incumbent at the time but a former governor. ** Orland Loomis died before taking office. Table compiled by Smart Politics with data from Wisconsin Blue Books.

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