An incoming tide, and color it blue

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Special Wisconsin state senate election focuses national attention.

A POLITICAL SHOCKER occurred in northwestern Wisconsin this week. A state senate seat that had been red for a very long time turned blue when Democrat Patty Schachtner convincingly thumped the Republican candidate, Rep. Adam Jarchow.

The seat had been held for 17 years by former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, who resigned to accept a cabinet appointment from Gov. Scott Walker, thus creating the need for a special election.

Harsdorf had won easily in the past in the mostly rural district. In 2016 the district went for Donald Trump by 17 points. On Tuesday, though, Schachtner beat Jarchow by 11 points. That's a jaw-dropping swing of 28 percentage points, one that sparked a tweet from Walker - who stands for re-election in November - calling Schachtner's election "a wake-up call for Republicans in Wisconsin."

THAT IN ITSELF is an eye-opener, with the usually imperturbable Walker showing a bit of vulnerability and issuing a call to arms for his party across the state. But Democrats salivating at a chance to knock off Walker might also note, on the same day as the tweet, the Walker camp reported raising more campaign dollars than all his Democrat challengers combined.

The question is what ought to be read from this flipping of a senate seat from red to blue. The answer is muddier than one might think.

First, when an incumbent vacates a long-held seat it's always somewhat up for grabs. Voters are tempted to take the opportunity to vote for change just to see what the other side can do for them.

Second, Jarchow was not a particularly strong candidate. His reputation in politics is far from sparkling.

Third, women have been energized over the past year by the tone of politics and a parade of men behaving badly. It was a good time for Schachtner to be the woman on the ticket.

Finally, the Trump factor. Whatever else it may mean, it's safe to say it has not been a net plus for Republican candidates.

ON THE OTHER HAND, Democrats are deluding themselves if they want to believe Trump will be the deciding factor for 2018 elections. A popular president can help his party. An unpopular president can hurt his party. But politics is local, and it comes down to the people actually on the ballot.

So it's tough to predict the impact on Walker.

Here's our take. The party in power always overplays its hand. The most extreme party ideologues become convinced they can get away with whatever they want to do. That may be even more true in recent years, when Republicans have redrawn legislative lines to advantage themselves and played around with voting laws in ways that clearly target traditional Democrat voters. Even the Act 10 legislation, which did some good things for taxpayers, had a clearly partisan element. Knee-capping unions essentially destroyed one of the biggest Democrat sources of campaign cash and door-knockers.

But what goes around comes around. Republicans have governed from the hard right. That's a minority constituency. When something comes along to disrupt the cycle and arouse voters - think: Trump - that minority constituency's grip on power becomes much less certain. Sooner or later, a new majority emerges to take down the governing class. It happens when Democrats go too far left. Increasingly, it looks like 2018 may be the year it happens to Republicans who went too far right.

PERHAPS, SOME DAY, the parties might wise up and recognize most people prefer a more centrist government. That's because most people are a little bit conservative and a little bit liberal. Translated, that means most people support economic policies that promote growth and prosperity, while demonstrating a frugal approach to spending tax dollars. At the same time, though, most people have a lot of compassion for others, and bristle at hard-line policies they deem mean-spirited or punishing. Meanwhile, almost everybody supports strong national security. If a candidate - or a third party - figures that out and sensibly splits the difference, Democrats and Republicans better look out.

Governing majorities continue overplaying their hands at their considerable peril. No two ways about it: Republican ascendancy led directly to Trump, and his 34 percent approval rating ought to sound like a five-alarm bell before the November elections.

Here, in Wisconsin, it truly is a "wake-up call" for Republicans. For the first time in a long time, Governor Walker is swimming against an incoming blue tide.

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