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And the Candidates Are…

A preview of the September primary matchups

Jul. 21, 2010
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Will the balance of power in Washington and Madison shift with this fall’s elections?

That’s a tough call right now because we still don’t know who will be on the ballot in the November election. The party primary elections, to be held Sept. 14, will determine the candidates to represent each party in the November general election. A candidate who can win a primary because the party faithful loves him or her might also be a weak candidate in the November general election.

Currently, Wisconsin Democrats hold an advantage on elected positions: both U.S. senators are Democrats, a Democrat is in the governor’s mansion, five of the eight congressional members are Democrats and the Democrats have a majority of both houses of the state Legislature (18 Democrats to 15 Republicans in the state Senate, and 52 Democrats plus one Independent to 46 Republicans in the state Assembly). The margins in both the state Senate and Assembly are very slim for Democrats in this mid-cycle election. Historically, the midterm election of a president’s first term sees losses for his party in Congress and down the ticket, so this will be a more difficult year for Democrats.

In many districts, the balance of power will not be affected—even in open seats, like Ted Kanavas’ Brookfield Senate district, which will remain safely in Republican hands, or state Rep. Annette (Polly) Williams’ district in Milwaukee, which will definitely stay Democratic.

Primary challenges in safe partisan districts also will not change the balance of power. In these districts, all of the action is in the primaries, among fellow partisans. And when incumbents are challenged—for example, Milwaukee County Supervisor Chris Larson’s campaign to unseat state Sen. Jeff Plale, on the county’s east side—the primary is all-important.

The interesting element in fall primary elections as compared to spring primary elections or the general elections is that voters can only cast a ballot for one party. Primary elections are intra-party affairs. That means there are no ticket-splitting votes, as there are in general elections. So voters who, for example, want to vote for a Democrat for governor can’t also vote for a Republican for Assembly. Voters must make a choice: Vote in either the Democratic or the Republican September primary.

Those with the most difficult choice are conservative Democrats, especially in Milwaukee County, many of whom we predict would like to vote for a Republican candidate for governor (Scott Walker or Mark Neumann) and a Democrat for sheriff (David Clarke). This decision is also going to affect other races on the ballot—if you decide to vote in the Republican primary for governor you can’t vote for the conservative Democrat in a Democratic primary for Senate and Assembly. That would strengthen liberal Democrats in their primaries and perhaps skew the Republican races as well in ways that are hard to predict right now.

Here’s a preview of selected races in our area:

U.S. Senate—Republicans

Perhaps no other race in the state bears the stamp of the tea party more than the campaign to unseat Sen. Russ Feingold. The thing is, even tea party activists haven’t decided which candidate they’ll support. Republican Party-endorsed businessman Ron Johnson came out of nowhere while counting on his alleged tea party—and right-wing talk radio—support. But tea partiers aren’t sold on him and the Republican endorsement he received isn’t necessarily helping him with the tea party crowd, which generally distrusts both established parties. Plus, Johnson will spend millions and millions of dollars on his race. In contrast, organic farmer David Westlake is running a grassroots campaign that’s more in tune with the movement, and tea partiers in his part of the state like him. Whether that’s enough to push him over the line is anyone’s guess, but grassroots activism plus multiple Johnson slip-ups on the campaign trail may hand the nomination to Westlake. Stephen Finn is also on the ballot as a Republican.


One of the most intense races in the state is the Republican campaign for governor pitting party favorite Scott Walker against Mark Neumann. In a normal year, Neumann would be a dream candidate for the Republicans—he’s conservative, a former congressman who had spent much of his career in the private sector and currently runs a successful home-building business. But this isn’t a normal year, and Walker isn’t a normal candidate. Walker has been running for governor for the past six years. This year, unlike 2006, he has much of his party’s support. But that may not work for him in a year that favors outsiders like Neumann. We also believe that Walker’s record as county executive will give voters pause—there are simply too many budget holes, pieces of crumbling infrastructure and slippery rhetoric for him to gain the public’s trust. Any of the early polling in a race like this is often just name recognition because the two candidates have not yet defined themselves and their positions, so this will be a very interesting race to watch. Scott Paterick and John Schiess are also on the Republican ballot.


Yes, there actually is a primary on the Democratic side of the governor’s race. Front-runner Tom Barrett has the experience, gravitas, and campaign infrastructure to mount a serious campaign this year, while grassroots candidate Tim Johns is raising issues on the campaign trail about social and economic justice that can appeal to a Democratic voter’s strong sense of fairness. That said, it’s Barrett’s year, and while this campaign isn’t drawing the amount of attention given to the Republican candidates for governor, there will be plenty of action in the fall after the primary.

Lieutenant Governor—Republicans

There are five candidates on the Republican ballot for lieutenant governor, a position that essentially has one mandated function: to step in as governor should something happen that prevents the governor from performing his or her duties. The Republican candidate roster includes a retiring state representative, Brett Davis; a former TV newsperson, Rebecca Kleefisch; a scion from a well-regarded Republican political family from northern Wisconsin, Robert Lorge; a small-city mayor, Superior’s Dave Ross; and Nick Voegeli.

Lieutenant Governor—Democrats

The Democratic lieutenant governor roster has four candidates. They are a state senator from Milwaukee, Spencer Coggs; the current majority leader in the state Assembly, Tom Nelson; a former candidate for state Assembly from the Madison area, Henry Sanders; and James Schneider. Voters will know very little about the candidate that they vote for in the lieutenant governor’s race in either party because the office has a very low profile, candidates will get little free media coverage, and there will be little money to buy campaign advertising. However, it is important to note that two of the last six lieutenant governors took over as governor during their term.

Milwaukee County Sheriff—Democrats

Disgruntled Democrats get another chance to kick Sheriff David Clarke off the ballot. Clarke, who masquerades as a Democrat during election season but actively supported President Bush and Scott Walker and has ties to Karl Rove—yes, the Karl Rove—is being challenged by a real Democrat: Chris Moews, a lieutenant with the Milwaukee Police Department, where he is the late-shift supervisor of the homicide division. We think Moews has the credentials to be a great sheriff and the support among activists to make Clarke nervous. Plus, many Clarke supporters also support Walker, and they won’t be able to split their vote. They’ll have to decide to either vote in the Republican primary for Walker or vote in the Democratic primary for Clarke—a choice they didn’t have to make four years ago when Walker dropped out of the Republican primary for governor. The winner will face Steven Duckhorn in November.

State Senate District 7—Democrats

East Side, Bay View, St. Francis, Cudahy, Oak Creek and South Milwaukee

State Sen. Jeff Plale is looking more vulnerable than he has in the past. His move to squelch debate on the Clean Energy Jobs Act and his uncritical support of the utility companies as well as his advocacy for utility deregulation and nuclear power have upset many activist Democrats and allied groups, who are targeting him in a big way. Plus, conservative constituents who usually put him over the edge may wind up voting in the Republican primary, canceling out his advantage. His challenger, Supervisor Chris Larson, is running a progressive campaign to save mass transit and jobs. He’ll get a heavy turnout on the East Side and Bay View, his home turf. The winner will face Republican Jess Ripp in November.

State Senate District 33—Republicans

Waukesha and Washington Counties

This is a safe Republican district and no Democrat interested in actually winning even dared to get on the ballot, so whoever wins the Republican primary becomes senator. Village of Sussex Trustee Tim Dietrich is facing state Rep. Rich Zipperer. Both candidates are running fairly mainstream conservative Republican campaigns, although Zipperer has more experience in state politics.

Assembly District 7—Democrats

Greenfield and Milwaukee

State Rep. Peggy Krusick, who has represented this district since 1983, is being challenged in the primary by Scott Dettman, a hospital and health care researcher who’s making his first run for the Legislature. Again, the Republican primary may be a spoiler in this race. Conservative Democrats may vote for Walker, leaving Krusick to fend for herself. Whoever wins this primary will face former Libertarian candidate Brad Sponholz, now running as a Republican.

Assembly District 8—Democrats

Milwaukee’s South Side

State Rep. Pedro Colon has represented this heavily Democratic district since 1998, and with his departure this vibrant South Side neighborhood (with chronically low voter turnout, unfortunately) will elect a new representative. On the ballot is Laura Manriquez, board president of Esperanza Unida, who challenged Colon in 2008. Angel Sanchez, owner of Sanchez Construction, represented the neighborhood from 2000 to 2004 as alderman. JoCasta Zamarripa, an educator and community outreach coordinator for Planned Parenthood, ran for Common Council in 2008. Zamarripa already has the endorsement of AFT Local 212, SEIU, Planned Parenthood Advocates, adjacent district state Rep. Josh Zepnick and Milwaukee County Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic, an early advantage. Ramona Rivas is running as an Independent in the general election.

Assembly District 10—Democrats

Milwaukee’s North Side

Three Democrats with deep roots in the community have stepped in to replace Rep. Annette (Polly) Williams, who’s decided to retire. Milwaukee County Supervisor Elizabeth M. Coggs comes from a respected political family and is chair of the county’s Audit and Finance Committee. AFSCME District Council 48’s Stephanie Findley will no doubt earn a chunk of her support from organized labor. Sherman L. Hill is the newly retired executive director of the Harambee Ombudsman Project Inc. (HOPI). The primary winner will face Independent candidate Ieshuh Griffin.

Assembly District 14—Republicans

Wauwatosa, Brookfield, Elm Grove and West Allis

State Rep. Leah Vukmir is vacating this seat to take on Democratic Sen. Jim Sullivan in November. No less than six Republicans are on the primary ballot—David Coon, Dennis Kaun, Dale Kooyenga, Chris Maurer, Michael Olen and Ryan Shulander. No Democrats are in the running, so this Assembly seat will remain Republican.

District 16—Democrats

District 17—Democrats


District 16 will pit incumbent Leon Young against James Dieter. District 17 will see incumbent Barbara Toles face Michael Erdmann. Barring something unusual in either of the above races—like the challenger mounting a vigorous door-to-door campaign, which should have started four months ago and which hasn’t—the incumbents should sail to a very comfortable victory.

Assembly District 82—Republicans

Greendale, Greenfield and Franklin

Incumbent Jeff Stone—not exactly a moderate Republican, although he's in the mainstream—is being challenged by Franklin's Larry Gamble, co-founder of the Wisconsin GrandSons of Liberty, a tea party group. No Democrats have declared in the race, so the primary winner will coast to victory in the fall.

Assembly District 84—Republicans

New Berlin and Hales Corners

State Rep. Mark Gundrum is now a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge, and four Republicans are vying for this open seat—Perry Grutza, Mike Kuglitsch, John Marek and Dave Swarthout. The winner will face Democrat Don Vanpool in November.


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