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Mapping Out the November Elections

Will voters choose ultraconservative Republicans instead of moderate Democrats?

Sep. 22, 2010
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How much will Wisconsin’s government change as a result of the Nov. 2 general election? Will voters get swept up in the supposed national movement to knock out incumbents by electing political novices with extreme ideologies? Or will they support more moderate candidates who are offering more pragmatic solutions?

Currently, Democrats hold every statewide office except for attorney general. As a result, the state’s focus has been on the core Democratic values of creating jobs, lowering property taxes, ensuring affordable educational opportunities, protecting the environment and expanding health care coverage for low-income workers while asking high-income earners to simply pay their fair share.

Republicans are counting on a nationally funded, very vocal crowd to stir voters’ frustration with the pace of the economic recovery to sweep their candidates into office. No one can deny that the economy is the main issue—and when the economy is in trouble, no matter what the reason, the party in power gets the blame.

However, a review of the Republican candidates on the November ballot shows that these aren’t Republicans in the mold of Tommy Thompson or Scott McCallum, both of whom were moderate party leaders who were more pragmatic than ideological.

The Republican candidates who prevailed in the GOP primary last week are far more conservative. On economic issues, they still support the discredited “trickle down” theory that says if you give large tax breaks to the wealthy, the benefits will “trickle down” to the rest of us. “If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows,” as economist John Kenneth Galbraith used to say. They want to restore tax loopholes that benefit big corporations, cut health care programs for low-wage workers and give tax breaks to the wealthiest Wisconsinites.

On social issues, this crop of Republicans is far more conservative than its predecessors. Not only are prominent candidates running explicitly as fundamentalist Christians, but Pro-Life Wisconsin has endorsed a slew of Republican candidates. Pro-Life Wisconsin does not endorse casually—unlike the mainstream pro-life group Wisconsin Right to Life, Pro-Life Wisconsin is an extremist group that backs a “100% pro-life” agenda, which seeks to outlaw abortions even for women who have been the victims of rape or incest or whose lives are in danger. It also wants to ban birth control, which it says causes abortions. This group endorsed the gubernatorial ticket of Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch, as well as Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, 10 candidates for state Senate and candidates in 51 Assembly districts. The numbers indicate that this year’s Republican ticket is dominated by the right wing of the party.

These Republicans are seeking the support of the tea party crowd, which claims to be concerned only with economic issues, even though the candidates have a far broader—and quite frankly, dangerous—social agenda.

Will this platform sweep Republicans into office? Or will it turn off the moderate and independent voters that both parties are trying to win over? Let’s look at the individual races.

U.S. Senate

First up is the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Russ Feingold and Republican Ron Johnson. Feingold is a good match for this ideologically moderate state. He’s a fiscal conservative who supports gun rights, which appeals to independent voters. He’s also strongly pro-choice and pro-civil liberties and has fought against unnecessary wars abroad. (He was the only senator to vote against the “Patriot Act,” which Bush and Cheney used to cut back on Americans’ civil liberties.) But like all incumbents this year, Feingold faces a tough re-election. His GOP rival, millionaire plastics manufacturer Johnson, is having a tough time convincing voters that he has a thorough understanding of the big policy issues he’d have to handle in the Senate. While he has a ton of money to pour into the campaign and the backing of deep-pocketed Washington insiders (he will have plenty of 30-second TV ads), the question remains: In the upcoming debates, can Johnson convince independent voters that he is qualified for the job? Independent voters tend to focus on debates, where Johnson will have to speak for himself instead of relying on the directors of his campaign commercials.


The governor’s race is going to bring people to the polls. The right wing is trying to paint Democrats Tom Barrett and Tom Nelson as serving Gov. Jim Doyle’s “third term” at a time when voters want change. But how true is that? Doyle and Barrett are very different people and, likewise, a Barrett administration would be different in so many ways. Barrett has a remarkably clean ethical record, has led Milwaukee capably through tough times and is putting forward moderate, pragmatic proposals to stimulate job creation and preserve social services. Barrett is his own man—one who’s a very mainstream, moderate Democrat.

In contrast, Republicans Scott Walker and Rebecca Kleefisch are trying to connect with everyday working Wisconsinites even though their policies disproportionately benefit the state’s wealthiest residents at the expense of public education, infrastructure repairs for such projects as our aging bridges and Wisconsin’s wonderful environment. In addition, this is the first anti-contraceptive, “100% pro-life” ticket we’ve ever seen in this state. The duo is far to the right of fellow Republicans Tommy Thompson, Scott McCallum and Mark Green. Will independents and moderates vote for them once they know their positions on the issues? Will women support this ticket? We’ll see on Nov. 2.

Attorney General

The race for attorney general is another fascinating, important matchup, with incumbent Republican J.B. Van Hollen facing former DNR Secretary Scott Hassett, a Democrat. Van Hollen, who unfortunately has shown that he’s willing to politicize this position unnecessarily, has consistently done the bidding of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) while in office. Hassett, whose father was a major Republican figure in Wisconsin, has an interesting background. Hassett, a litigator in the private sector for years, is an avid hunter and conservationist with experience leading the DNR, a major state government agency.

Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation: Who Will Flip?

Will Wisconsin continue to send five Democrats and three Republicans to Washington?

Let’s break it down district by district. In Milwaukee County, Democrat Gwen Moore faces Republican Dan Sebring. Moore has built up a lot of good will over the years because she’s very visible in the community and acts on her constituents’ concerns. Sebring has staked out unrealistically conservative positions on the issues. Not surprisingly, he’s been endorsed by Pro-Life Wisconsin.

In southeastern Wisconsin, Paul Ryan, a right-wing media darling, is being challenged by Democrat John Heckenlively, who’s sharply critical of Ryan’s dangerous “Roadmap for America.” Despite the fact that Ryan’s votes haven’t helped his district, he has a huge war chest and essentially gets a free pass in the Journal Sentinel. Heckenlively has a difficult task ahead of him.

In the suburbs, longtime conservative Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner is facing moderate Democrat Todd Kolosso. We think Kolosso is a good fit for this moderate-to-conservative district, though it is considered a safe Republican seat. Kolosso is facing a very tough challenge to win this race.

In the Madison area, we think Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin will survive her challenge from Republican Chad Lee. It helps that Baldwin’s district has become more Democratic.

On the western side of the state, Democrat Ron Kind is a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who is viewed as fairly safe in his district. This is expected to be a tough year for incumbents, but Kind will be able to make use of the ethical lapses of his opponent, state Sen. Dan Kapanke, and likely win re-election fairly easily.

In the Fox Valley area, Democrat Joe Kallas, who teaches college courses at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution, is facing a real uphill battle against another longtime incumbent, Republican Tom Petri. Petri would be difficult to defeat even in a good year for Democrats.

In the Green Bay area, Democratic Congressman and medical doctor Steve Kagan has been a strong supporter of health care reform, an issue he thoroughly understands, even though it’s a stance that has drawn the ire of some conservatives. Kagan remains in step with his district, including the small-business owners who will benefit from reform. We think Kagan will survive his challenge from Republican Reid Ribble.

That brings us to the open seat in northwestern Wisconsin, which is being vacated by 41-year incumbent David Obey. On the Republican side, primary voters chose the Sarah Palin-backed candidate, Sean Duffy, the district attorney of Ashland County and a former reality TV star. Democrats gave state Sen. Julie Lassa a big win in her primary. We think this will be a very competitive race. On one side you have the extreme right-wing group Americans for Prosperity, which has already targeted Lassa. This means the race will draw lots of out-of-state money. On the other side you have retiring Congressman David Obey, a very popular and powerful politician who will work hard to make sure that this seat stays in the Democratic column. This part of Wisconsin is solidly Democratic and Duffy’s cozying up to the far-right wing of the Republican Party should turn off moderate voters. In addition to her solid record in the state Legislature, Lassa is a strong campaigner. This will be a very competitive race, but we believe Lassa will prevail.

State Senate

Half of the state Senate is up for election, including three seats in the Milwaukee area. For the past two years, Democrats have had a majority of 18 to 15. Since only two seats have to flip for the Senate to change hands, the question is: “Will the Republicans gain control of the Senate?”

Also, will any Milwaukee seats flip?

Three elections in particular will probably determine who controls the state Senate, and two of them are in our Shepherd Express media market: the western Milwaukee County/eastern Waukesha County seat and the Racine County seat. The other highly contested seat is in the Door County Peninsula.

Republicans are salivating over the Jim Sullivan-Leah Vukmir matchup in the 5th Senate District, which includes Milwaukee, West Milwaukee, Elm Grove, Wauwatosa, Brookfield and West Allis.

Sullivan has completed his first term in the state Senate and has a very moderate, bipartisan voting record. That matches this demographically and ideologically mixed Senate district, which is represented by two Democrats (David Cullen and Tony Staskunas) and one Republican (the outgoing Vukmir, who will be succeeded by Dale Kooyenga, the winner of the Sept. 14 Republican primary).

In contrast to Sullivan, Vukmir has an ultraconservative voting record and has built up a lot of animosity during her eight years in the state Assembly—a lot of that animosity is coming from her fellow Republicans. Talk radio has latched on to this race because conservatives are still sore about Sullivan’s win in 2006 over right-wing embarrassment Tom Reynolds.

This district has a smart constituency that pays attention to the issues. It was held by a moderate Republican, Peggy Rosenzweig, until she was defeated in a 2004 primary in which the moderate Republicans voted in the Democratic primary and left the conservative Republicans to elect an extremist, Tom Reynolds, who was then defeated by Democrat Sullivan four years later. With a chance to regain that seat in 2010 with a moderate Republican candidate, the Republicans instead nominated another extremist, Vukmir, who may well go down in defeat like Reynolds.

This is going to be a tough fight because of all the noise that will emanate from the right-wing echo chamber. But if the election is about the issues, then Sullivan will win hands down. Vukmir’s far-right positions on the issues won’t appeal to the broad base of voters in the Senate district who live outside of Vukmir’s conservative Assembly district.

Another interesting race to watch is down in Racine, where Sen. John Lehman is running for his second term. Lehman is touting his job-creation, environmental and pro-education efforts. His Republican opponent, Racine County Supervisor Van Wanggaard, is running on issues that will appeal to the wealthy: giving tax breaks to top income earners, reopening the Las Vegas tax loophole for businesses and restoring the capital gains tax exemption.

We expect close races, but despite some of the commentary from the right, we don’t expect either of these seats to flip into the Republican column.

In the third race, in Door County, the incumbent Republican Alan Lasee is retiring after 33 years in the state Senate. The Democrats have fielded an exceptional candidate, Montgomery (Monk) Elmer, a medical doctor and current president of the Kimberly School Board. The Republican candidate, Frank Lasee, is a former state representative who was defeated two years ago in one of the three Assembly districts that comprise this Senate seat. As a state representative, the extremist Lasee was made famous for his efforts to arm teachers in the classroom as a way to maintain safety in the schools. He was also the proponent of TABOR, the taxpayers’ bill of rights that many moderate and conservative Republicans think is far too extreme. This Senate seat has traditionally been Republican, but the demographics of Door County have been changing.

State Assembly

In the state Assembly, Democrats have 52 seats, plus one Independent who caucuses with them, while the Republicans have 46 seats. That means Republicans would need to flip four districts to gain control.

In Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, the primaries essentially determined the outcome of the upcoming elections. Upsets are possible, but by definition an upset is a rare occurrence. We will see some new faces, but in all likelihood the party affiliation will remain the same in all of these assembly districts. The action is in the rest of the state.

The conventional wisdom is that Republicans will pick up enough seats to put them back in the majority. A closer look at the situation shows that this will be a very competitive election season, especially in smaller districts like state Assembly that have less than 60,000 people.

Republicans faced contested primary races last week in 32 of the 99 Assembly districts, and Democrats faced 12. Some of the Republican primaries had four, five or even six candidates, which may create another set of problems. There are only seven weeks after the primary until the general election, so there could be a lot of fences that need mending depending on how nasty the campaign got. With a large number of primary candidates in a race, the best candidate for the general election does not always prevail, since a large primary pulls Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left to win over the “true believers.” This year, with the “tea party movement,” the Republicans had a number of their moderate mainstream candidates beaten by extremists who may have won enough votes in a primary but will be at a severe disadvantage in a general election. Large primaries also cause lots of money to be spent early, which could leave some cash sources tapped out for the general election.

There are a number of Democratic freshman Assembly members who were elected by small margins in swing districts thanks to President Obama’s big victory in Wisconsin in 2008, so the Republicans are definitely targeting them. Many will survive the Republican challenge because they have worked the district for the past two years and built a good reputation.

Despite indications that Republicans nationwide have much more energy on their side, these smaller races become very personal and much depends on the quality of the candidates, how hard they are willing to work and how much money will be spent in the race.

We believe that there will be some very competitive races where districts will change parties. Many of these are open races where the incumbent is not on the ticket.

One district the Democrats believe they will pick up is the 80th Assembly District (Green and Rock counties, and part of Dane County) currently held by Brett Davis, who gave up his seat to run in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor. The Democratic candidate, Janis Ringhand, ran against Davis in 2006 and lost with 49.4% of the vote. She is the former mayor of Evansville, ran a small business and is an accountant by training. Ringhand is running against Dan Henke, a homebuilder who is being outworked and outspent by Ringhand in a district that definitely leans Democratic.

The 35th District in northern Wisconsin (Lincoln County and parts of Langlade, Marathon and Oneida counties) is another open seat. A Republican currently holds the seat, but this is a Democratic-leaning district. And the mainstream Republican candidate lost in a primary to Tom Tiffany, a far right-wing Republican. Democrats believe they will pick up this seat with Democratic candidate Jay Schmelling, who is the executive director of the Wisconsin Pipe Trades Association.

In the 87th District (Price, Rusk and Taylor counties), incumbent Republican Mary Williams has won squeaker elections in a district that leans Republican. This year she is being challenged by a very strong Democrat, Dana Schultz. Schultz, a former UW-Milwaukee basketball star, is young and energetic, and grew up on a dairy farm in the area. Despite predictions of this being a great year for Republicans, the candidate does matter—and the Democrats have found an excellent one.

In Door County, incumbent and moderate Republican Garey Bies is being challenged by Dick Skare (pronounced Scary), a restaurateur who founded the Cookery. Door County is becoming more liberal as wealthier progressive Democrats from suburban Chicago and Milwaukee move to the area. This will be an uphill battle for Skare, but it is a possible win for the Democrats.

One seat the Republicans believe they can take back from the Democrats is the 5th Assembly District (Outagamie and Brown counties) vacated by Majority Leader Tom Nelson, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Nelson is a hard-driving campaigner who took the seat from the Republicans in 2004. The problem for the Republicans is that Jim Steineke is a tea party guy who was left with very little money in his campaign after the primary. We believe that money will not be his biggest issue if the Republicans want to win this seat over Democratic candidate Mert Summers.

Milwaukee County Sheriff

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke barely squeaked by with 53% of the vote in the Democratic primary. The controversial sheriff will face Republican Steven Duckhorn in the November election. Duckhorn is a Milwaukee Police Department officer who is critical of Clarke’s high visibility at political events and public appearances while he neglects his own official duties. Duckhorn wants to increase the number of deputies assigned to highway patrol and other critical areas, network with other law enforcement agencies to combat drug trafficking from Illinois, find federal funds for terrorism prevention at the airport and upgrade training of sheriff personnel at the jail.


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