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State Senate Update: Who Is Going to Win?

Eight districts are in play

Oct. 8, 2008
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With the top of the Nov. 4 ticket—Barack Obama vs. John McCain—currently leaning Obama’s way in Wisconsin and the Republicans at all levels suffering from the historically low approval ratings of their president, one of the big questions is what will happen to the state Senate, where the Democrats currently have an 18 to 15 majority.

Sixteen of the 33 state Senate seats are up for election this year, eight currently held by each party. Of the eight seats held by each party, four seats from each party are held by unopposed incumbents. That leaves eight seats—four held by Democrats and four held by Republicans— that will decide the majority for next session. There are two open seats where the incumbent is not running for re-election. In this very symmetric year, one was held by a Democrat and one by a Republican.

Of the eight seats in play, seven are being seriously challenged; four are Republican seats, while three are held by Democrats.


Milwaukee’s North Shore: Darling vs. Wasserman
A highly competitive and very expensive Senate race—possibly the most expensive Senate race in Wisconsin’s history—is the Alberta Darling vs. Sheldon Wasserman matchup in Milwaukee’s North Shore (covered in this week’s Shepherd cover story).

Wasserman is cautiously favored for two reasons, even though this district has had a slight Republican bias. Wasserman, an obstetrician, is definitely outworking Darling. He has knocked on more than 23,000 doors over the past year and a half. In addition, many moderate Republicans, especially women, are disappointed with Darling, who went from being a moderate Republican when she was first elected in 1990 to a traditional conservative Republican. Specifically, Darling had once been on the board of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin; in this race, however, she received a qualified endorsement from Wisconsin Right to Life. This is a must-watch race.

Western Wisconsin: Dan Kapanke vs. Tara Johnson
This is an interesting race because first-term incumbent Republican Dan Kapanke occupies a seat that votes 58.3% Democratic in presidential election years. Over the past 20 years the district has been held by a moderate Republican and then by a moderate Democrat. But over the last several years it has become more of a Democratic district, even though the current state senator is a very right-wing Republican.

Sen. Kapanke, for example, voted against the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims bill, which requires hospitals to give information about emergency contraception to rape victims and, if requested, dispense the medication. He also voted for a bill that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions if it violated the pharmacist’s personal beliefs. Kapanke is, however, a good campaigner. But his very extreme votes should not sit well with this rather moderate district.

His opponent, Democrat Tara Johnson, is in her fifth term as a La Crosse County supervisor and currently serves as its vice chair. She has been chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and sat on the Economic Development Fund Committee. She is well regarded in the area, thanks to her service as executive director of the La Crosse Area United Way, on the board of the La Crosse Rotary Club and in the Chamber of Commerce Leadership Program. This is definitely a race to watch and an excellent chance for a Democratic pickup.

Northern Wisconsin: Open Seat: Jim Holperin vs. Tom Tiffany

This is the seat that was vacated by now Railroad Commissioner Roger Breske. Holperin is a former Democratic state representative from Eagle River. He retired in 1994 and since then has served as executive director of Trees for Tomorrow, which teaches resource management, and was appointed Wisconsin Secretary of Tourism in 2003. While in the state Assembly he was very well respected, a moderate, and served on the key Joint Finance Committee for several terms.

Republican Tom Tiffany ran against Sen. Breske in 2004 and lost, receiving approximately 47% of the vote. Tiffany does have some residual name recognition from that race four years ago. He has far-right-wing politics and little understanding of state government, but the Republicans see this race as probably their only chance to pick up a Democratic-held seat. That gives Tiffany the opportunity to raise serious money from the Republican base. As of the last reporting period, Holperin had raised approximately $107,000 compared to Tiffany’s $100,000.

The district has had a slight Republican bias at the top of the ticket, but it has been held by Democrats for the past 25 years. Over the past few years the district has been trending more Democratic, with Feingold getting 55% of the vote in 2004. This is one district where Obama heading the ticket could actually hurt, due to a higher level of racism in this northern Wisconsin area than in the other contested districts. But there is a highly contested congressional race in this area that should help the Democrats. The last polling on this race was done in August and Holperin had a definite lead.

Lower Fox River Valley: Open Seat: Jessica King vs. Randy Hopper

This district was held by a Republican, Carol Roessler, and has had a slight Republican bias. The race to succeed Roessler is very close, according to an August poll that showed Democrat Jessica King having a slight lead over Republican Randy Hopper, by a 37% to 35% margin, with a large undecided vote.

What gives the Democrats great optimism in this race is the remarkable history of candidate Jessica King. King, who was raised by two mentally disabled parents, worked hard to put herself through college and law school. She also has a mentally disabled brother who had lived with her and whom she cared for. She recently won an at-large seat on the Oshkosh City Council, where she is a progressive thinker and the only woman on the council. She is a very strong campaigner and has been campaigning for more than a year. Although this has been a Republican-controlled Senate seat, the Republicans had trouble recruiting a candidate against King and finally convinced Hopper just days before the candidate filing deadline. Hopper is referred to as a “trust fund kid” and has purchased a few radio stations in the district. The different life histories of these two candidates couldn’t be starker: the selfmade child of mentally disabled parents compared to one with a privileged upbringing. This will also be a very interesting race to watch.

Northwest Wisconsin: Sheila Harsdorf vs. Alison Page

Longtime Republican state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf represents a district that has grown progressively more Democratic since Harsdorf was elected eight years ago. The Senate district is now more than 55% Democratic at the top of the ticket.

But while her rural district is becoming more Democratic, Harsdorf has been moving to the right as a more party-line Republican. She has, for example, supported policies that would provide tax incentives for out-of-state trash companies to dump their garbage in Wisconsin landfills. At the same time, though, Harsdorf is a very likable and decent person.

Her opponent this year is Alison Page, an extremely formidable candidate. Page was born and raised in the district, and she has a master’s degree in nursing and a master’s degree in health care administration. She has served on the River Falls school board for 17 years, 11 of those years as president of the board. Interestingly, Page managed Harsdorf’s first campaign for the state Assembly in 1988, but has become increasingly disappointed in Harsdorf as she moves further to the right politically.

Despite the advantages of the incumbency, this will be a very close race. In addition to the district trending more Democratic each year, the district has two college campuses—UW-Stout and UW-River Falls, both registering record numbers of new voters. In Wisconsin you don’t declare your party affiliation, but nationally new voters are registering as Democrats 2-to-1 over Republicans. With these numbers, Page has a very good chance for an upset.

Remaining Three Democratic Senate Seats

The remaining contested Democratic Senate seats are Bob Wirch of Kenosha, Dave Hansen of Green Bay and Julie Lassa of Stevens Point. Wirch’s opponent, Ben Bakke, is a young financial planner for Thrivent with no government experience and, as of the last campaign filing report, a negative balance. Wirch has knocked on more than 7,000 doors and is taking no chances.

Sen. Dave Hansen’s opponent, Chad Fradette, is a very right-wing Republican who is so extreme on abortion that even the Catholic bishop has distanced himself from him on that issue. The only polling had Hansen ahead by more than 2-to-1. Lastly, Julie Lassa’s opponent is really a token candidate and doesn’t pose a serious threat to the incumbent.

If this year continues to progress as it has recently, Obama continues to widen the gap with McCain and the economy continues to falter, the Democrats could pick up between one to three more state Senate seats.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.


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