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Will the Democrats Take Control of the State Assembly?

They’re just three seats short of a majority

Oct. 15, 2008
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Currently the state Assembly is controlled by the Republicans with a 52 to 47 majority and led by Speaker Mike Huebsch, who attended Oral Roberts University, a fundamentalist Christian institution. In the 2006 election, the Democrats picked up eight seats. This year they need just three more seats to have the majority.

It appears to be a very good year for Democrats, with polls showing that a majority of the voters view the Republican Bush administration as a complete failure and are looking for a change. Fortunately for the Assembly Democrats, this rejection of the Republican policies at the national level is extending down to the state legislative level. With the economy as the dominant issue in this election cycle, polling shows that 63% of the voters trust Democrats over Republicans on the issue of the economy and jobs. Unless things change dramatically in the next three weeks, the Democrats at the state level will probably pick up enough seats to gain the majority. Currently, the Assembly Democrats are raising almost twice as much money as the Republicans.

The following is a summary of 11 Assembly races that are definitely in play this year, listed in the following categories: seats held by Democrats that are targeted by the Republicans, open seats, and seats held by Republicans that are being challenged by Democrats.

Democrats Seeking Re-election
There are three Democratic seats with active Republican challengers: the 43rd District, which includes Whitewater, is held by Kim Hixson; the 49th District, in the far southwestern part of the state, is held by Phil Garthwaite; and the 88th District, on the east side of Green Bay, is held by Jim Soletski.

Assembly District 43 (Whitewater Area): Kim Hixson vs. Debi Towns
Two years ago, Democrat Kim Hixson beat incumbent Republican Debi Towns by just 38 votes. Towns is coming back, but this time Hixson is the incumbent. The district has a solid Democratic majority, with an average top-of-the-ticket performance of 56.3% Democrat. John Kerry carried the district by 54.8% in 2004 and Russ Feingold polls over 60%. Barack Obama is polling at more than 60% in the district as well, so assuming that the Obama supporters vote Democratic down the ticket, it should be an easy win. Hixson is a former professor at UW-Whitewater’s business school and is campaigning hard. Towns is currently working with a right-wing school-choice advocacy group. She should get a good portion of the out-of-state school-choice money.

Assembly District 49 (Southeastern Wisconsin): Phil Garthwaite vs. Travis Tranel
Democrat Phil Garthwaite was elected in 2006 in a district that is essentially 50/50 Democrat/Republican in presidential races. Garthwaite was a farm radio broadcaster and is an excellent campaigner. His opponent, Republican Travis Tranel, is a 24-yearold farmer and an unabashed and vocal George Bush supporter. If the current polling trends continue, this could be a strong win for Garthwaite.

Assembly District 88 (East Side of Green Bay): Jim Soletski vs. Tony Theisen
Democrat Jim Soletski was elected to the Assembly in 2006 with only a 68-vote margin. The district has a top-of-the-ticket 53% Democratic advantage. In 2006, Gov. Doyle received 56% of the vote here; in 2004, Feingold received 58%. The challenger, Republican Tony Theisen, has served on the Green Bay City Council for 24 years. As a result of that service, he has political experience and name recognition. On the downside for him, though, Green Bay is currently running a $4.8 million deficit, which is hurting him along with some of his mean-spirited votes, including his efforts to prevent homeless people from seeking cover in the St. John’s homeless shelter. Assuming this continues to be a strong Democratic year, Soletski should win.

Open Seats
There are four highly contested open seats, thanks to the retirement of current Assembly members: the 47th District, in Columbia County; the 57th District in Appleton; the 91st District along the Mississippi above La Crosse; and the 92nd District in the Black River Falls area. Three of these four open seats are currently held by Republicans.

Assembly District 47 (Columbia and Dane Counties): Trish O’Neil vs. Keith Ripp
This district has been held by Republican Eugene Hahn for the past 18 years, even though the district has a 52% Democratic advantage. Doyle received 55.2% of the vote here in 2006, and Feingold received 55.8% in 2004. The Democrat, Trish O’Neil, is a nurse and a member of the Columbus School Board. She is a very effective campaigner with a top-notch campaign ground strategy. She decisively beat the Lodi mayor in a primary with 62% of the vote and is endorsed by the very popular Dane County Executive, Kathleen Falk. Republican Keith Ripp is a farmer who has been active in the statewide farm organizations. He is also on the Town Board of Dane. Considering the Democratic advantage of the district and current national trends leaning strongly Democratic— combined with O’Neil’s effective ground organization—O’Neil has the advantage and this should be a Democratic pickup.

Assembly District 57 (Appleton): Jo Egelhoff vs. Penny Bernard Schaber

This open seat is created by the retirement of Republican Steve Wieckert. The district is essentially 50/50 Democrat/Republican at the top of the ticket, but Doyle won with 55.6% in 2006 and Feingold won with 56% in 2004. The district includes Lawrence University. Republican Jo Egelhoff is a right-wing blogger and former Appleton City Council member. She has offended important interest groups with her strong opinions on her blog, where, for example, she attacked seniors by referring to them as a burden. Democrat Penny Bernard Schaber ran against Wieckert in 2006, and although she lost with 47% of the vote, she has not stopped campaigning. She continues to campaign door-to-door. She has been active in political causes and was state chair of the Sierra Club. Assuming that all of the current polling trends continue, Bernard Schaber should win this time.

Assembly District 91 (Trempealeau, Buffalo and Pierce Counties): Chris Danou vs. Dave Hegenbarth

This open seat was held for 26 years by Democrat Barbara Gronemus. The district is 55.8% Democratic at the top of the ticket. Democrat Chris Danou is a police officer in Onalaska who appeals to many of the “lawand-order” voters who often lean Republican. Two years ago he lost in a Democratic state Senate primary against now-state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, but this year he won a seven-way Democratic primary for the 91st Assembly District. Republican Dave Hegenbarth is the former head of the Wisconsin Grocers Association. He is wealthy, which should enable him to raise money and contribute his own money if necessary. The district is very rural and definitely not wealthy, so the fact that Hegenbarth is referred to as part of the country-club set is probably not an advantage in this moment of economic crisis. Due to the Democratic bias of the district and the national Democratic trend, the Democrats should be able to keep the 91st District in their column.

Assembly District 92 (Jackson and Monroe Counties): Dan Hellman vs. Mark Radcliffe

The 92nd District has been held for the past 24 years by moderate Republican Terry Musser, a true “maverick” who would call them the way he saw them. The district has a 51.3% top-of-the-ticket Democratic advantage. Gov. Doyle received 52.7% of the votes in 2006 and Feingold won with 54.3% in 2004. Republican Dan Hellman is a former two-term Monroe County district attorney, so he has some political experience and name recognition. He also put together a very controversial course titled “The Defendant’s Handbook: Featuring the Eight Ways Criminal Defense Attorneys Screw Over Their Customers and a Good Way to Make Certain It Does Not Happen to You,” which was featured in the Oct. 8 Dan Bice column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This is a nonstarter for law-and-order Republicans.

Democrat Mark Radcliffe is also an attorney and comes from a longtime political family name in Black River Falls. One of the major issues in the campaign is property tax relief and whether shifting some of the school costs from the property tax to a sales tax increase would be wise. Hellman is skeptical of this tax shift, while Radcliffe is proposing that the state re-examine the corporate tax laws and close abusive loopholes and use that revenue for schools. Again, because of the national trends favoring Democrats this year, it should give Radcliffe a slight advantage—but this one is going to be close.

Republicans Seeking Re-election

There are four seats currently held by Republicans that are being strongly challenged by very active Democrats: the 36th District in the far northeastern portion of the state; the 68th District in Eau Claire County; the 80th District in Green County, along the Illinois border; and the 90th District on the west side of Green Bay.

Assembly District 36 (Far Northeastern Part of the State): Jeff Mursau vs. Stan Gruszynski 

Republican incumbent Jeff Mursau is being challenged by Democrat Stan Gruszynski. What makes this an interesting race is that Gruszynski served in the state Legislature for 10 years, from 1984 to 1994, representing Stevens Point. He left the Legislature to return to the community where he was born and raised, Marinette, to run for Congress. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice, but developed a lot of contacts and name recognition in the Assembly district. The district has a slight Republican bias at the top of the ticket, 50.5%, but Doyle won with 51.8% support in 2006 and Feingold received 52.5% in 2004. Despite representing the district for the past four years, polling has shown that Mursau, an electrical contractor, does not have strong name recognition. He has not distinguished himself as the leader on any particular issue. Gruszynski is an excellent public speaker and a strong campaigner, and with what is shaping up to be a strong Democratic year, this should be a very interesting race.

Assembly District 68 (Eau Claire): Terry Moulton vs. Kristen Dexter

Republican incumbent Terry Moulton is in a very tough race against Democrat Kristen Dexter. The district has a 56.2% top-of-theticket Democratic advantage. Moulton owns Mouldy’s Archery and Tackle in Chippewa Falls. Dexter was an Altoona School Board member for six years. A big issue in the campaign is whether the state should increase the sales tax by a penny to help fund the schools. Moulton is taking a tough line on taxes, as is his opponent. But when the Democrats in the Assembly wanted education protected from cuts, Moulton disagreed and said there were no sacred cows—including education. Moulton is the incumbent, which is always helpful, but again this is a Democratic year and this district has a Democratic advantage.

Assembly District 80 (Green County): Brett Davis vs. John Waelti

Republican Brett Davis, elected in 2004, is being challenged by Democrat John Waelti in a district that has a top-of-the-ticket history of 57.1% Democratic support. Davis is a young, very political and very partisan Republican operative who was a legislative aide to both a state senator and a state representative. He also worked for Tommy Thompson when Thompson was both governor and Health and Human Services secretary in Washington. Democrat Waelti is a retired agricultural economics professor at various high-profile universities, including the University of California-Berkeley. Waelti is a good Swiss name in a district that has a very heavy Swiss presence. (It includes New Glarus.) This will be an interesting race because even though the district has a significant Democratic advantage and this is a good Democratic year, Davis is the incumbent and a seasoned political operative. This one is too close to call.

Assembly District 90 (West Side of Green Bay): Karl Van Roy vs. Lou Ann Weix

Republican Karl Van Roy, a retired restaurateur of River’s Bend Supper Club, was elected in 2002. He is viewed as a nice guy whose main accomplishments include fighting to go easy on drunken drivers and opposing any increases in the state minimum wage. The district has a 51.2% Democratic advantage with Doyle winning 51.9% of the vote in 2006 and Feingold getting 54.1% in 2004. Democratic challenger Lou Ann Weix is a nurse anesthetist who has lived in the district for more than 30 years. She has been politically active through her state nursing organizations. She is a very hardworking campaigner, having knocked on more than 10,000 doors in the district. Van Roy has the lowest re-elect numbers of any Republican incumbent. This will be an interesting race to watch in this Democratic year.

In the spirit of full disclosure, the author is a former Democratic state legislator and has contributed money to three of these candidates this term: Danou, Garthwaite and Radcliffe.

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



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