WISCONSIN’S governor Scott Walker seemed a little frantic on the evening of January 16th. He began no fewer than eight tweets with “WAKE UP CALL”, in capital letters, after it became clear that a historically red district in a rural western region of his state had voted for a Democrat in a special election for a state senate seat. According to preliminary election returns, Patty Schachtner, a medical examiner, handily beat Adam Jarchow, a Republican member of the state assembly, by 11 percentage points.

Ms Schachtner’s victory was a surprise. She is far less experienced than Mr Jarchow and had a considerably smaller campaign chest. After her victory, Ms Schachtner explained in an interview that she thought she won because of the negative mailings from groups outside the district backing her opponent. Americans for Prosperity—the group backed by the Koch brothers, two conservative billionaires—paid for ads and mailings expressly backing Mr Jarchow. “It wasn’t nice. It was mean,” she said. “People just said, ‘You know what? We’re nicer than that.’ ” Ms Schachtner avoided mentioning voters’ disillusion with Donald Trump’s erratic government as another reason for her win.

Ms Schachtner’s victory follows other big electoral wins for the Democrats. In December, in a special election for a seat in the Senate in deep-red Alabama, the Republican Party’s controversial candidate, Roy Moore, was defeated by Doug Jones, a relatively unknown Democrat. In November, Democrats in Virginia triumphed in gubernatorial and legislative elections that many pundits viewed as a swing-state referendum on the Trump presidency. Even so, Republicans won four of in yesterday’s five special elections in Iowa, South Carolina and Wisconsin. And Democrats remain a minority of 14 against 18 in the Wisconsin state senate (with one Republican-leaning district vacant) and an even smaller minority in the state house.

It is too early for Democrats to talk about a “blue wave” sweeping the country; it might also be counterproductive. Especially in the Midwest, Democrats face a steep uphill battle to regain voters’ trust. The political action committee of Cheri Bustos, a Democrat from Illinois, recently published a report entitled "Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats can better serve the Midwest by bringing rural, working-class wisdom to Washington”. The report analyses why the Democrats lost scores of voters in the Midwest in recent years and makes suggestions how to win them back.

“Democrats from rural areas face an existential crisis”, says the report. “The number of Democrats holding office across the nation is at its lowest point since the 1920s and the decline has been especially severe in rural America”. Midwestern voters see “Democrats as fixated on siloed messages to specific groups that don’t include them or are too focused on controversial social issues to the exclusion of economic concerns”. In other words, they talk about transgender bathrooms rather than jobs in manufacturing, wages or other concerns closer to home. Janet Bewley, a Democratic state senator from Wisconsin, says in the report that the working class “just wants a car that runs, a vacation, and to be able to buy their kids the shoes they want rather than the shoes they need”. A state senator from Iowa, Kevin Kinney, says Democrats are perceived as arrogant and as talking down to rural folks in the Midwest. “We’re not in touch with people,” says Mr Kinney.

Ms Schachtner, the new senator-elect, seems to have understood how to be close to voters. Once she joins the state senate she intends to focus on improving access to health care and helping drug addicts get treatment. She wants to prioritise investment in local jobs, businesses and entrepreneurs “instead of giving foreign corporations and wealthy donors massive tax breaks and special exemptions from environmental protections”. She vows to “fight to retain local control so that our communities can decide what is best for our growth, instead of letting out-of-state corporations damage our clean land, air, and water for their own profit”.

Democrats now have an outside chance of winning back the senate in Wisconsin, which is why Mr Walker hit Twitter with a flurry of urgent tweets as it became clear Ms Schachtner was winning. There was, he told journalists on December 17th, a need to “distinguish between the inaction of Washington versus the positive action we are taking in Wisconsin." Whatever good work his party might be doing in the state, it is being overshadowed by voters’ disaffection with Mr Trump. That should worry Republicans going into mid-terms in 2018.