Can Wisconsin State Senate Democrats win back the majority in 2016?

Hamilton Tidbits takes a look at the prospect for a flip in the Senate happening in the 2016 elections 

Currently, Senate Republicans hold a 19-14 edge in Wisconsin’s upper chamber. This means Senate Democrats would need to win three seats in order to regain a majority they haven’t functionally held since they lost it in 2010*. From a statewide perspective, Wisconsin Democrats turnout in greater numbers during presidential elections, and with what appears to be a turbulent presidential race, the possibility for down ticket success for legislative Democrats would appear to be a possibility. Furthermore, with both Hillary Clinton and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Russ Feingold both holding leads according to the latest polls, it would seem to suggest that this could be a strong year for Democrats throughout Wisconsin.

While on paper the prospect of legislative gains for Senate Democrats appear high when you factor in the top of the ticket environment, but the reality of the opportunity for those gains starts to vanish when you take a look at the race by race opportunities Democrats have to flip seats and combine that with past history of down ticket legislative performance in presidential years. So, it is an uphill battle for sure but is there even a pathway for the Senate Democrats to retake the majority? We will explore.

Over the years the Wisconsin State Senate has flipped party control with a measure of frequency including multiple shifts within sessions due to special elections from retirements or CERSappointments. Today’s Senate Republicans would hold the largest uninterrupted majority in nearly 25 years…if not for a round of recall elections that temporarily flipped the majority for a few months leading into the 2012 elections. Some of that recent success can be attributed to smartly done redistricting, but some of the success also lies in the fact that Senate Republicans are not always impacted negatively when their statewide candidates aren’t successful.

For example, take a look at how Wisconsin Senate Republicans have fared in the last two presidential elections when President Obama won by 14 points in 2008 and 7 points in 2012. In 2008 (before redistricting), Senate Republicans entered the elections with 15 seats and exited the election with 15 seats. Republicans narrowly held the 18th District (the Democrats best chance for flip in 2016), and were very competitive in the 12th District (their second best chance for flip in 2016). With recent polling showing the presidential race in Wisconsin tightening, it’s hard to imagine 2016 being a better year for legislative opportunity than 2008. In 2012, a year where President Obama won by 7 and Senator Tammy Baldwin knocked off former Governor Tommy Thompson by over 200,000 votes, Wisconsin Senate Republicans gained seats.

In 2016 the pathway to a majority for Senate Democrats is very narrow and would need assistance by factors that currently do not exist. While most will concede that a Democratic seat getting flipped is unlikely, it could be argued that other than the open 18th District there may not be another competitive State Senate race throughout the entire state. A number of factors are working against Senate Democrats in this regard:

  • They have to beat generally well-regarded, well-known incumbents in a year, where at least in the primaries, incumbents have been successful.
  • They are running in traditionally Republican districts where Donald Trump is leading Hillary Clinton (sometimes by large margins) in internal polling.
  • They trail significantly in fundraising in seats they would have to win in order to topple the majority.
  • In those same seats where they trail in fundraising, they have candidates starting with very low name ID.

While we have written about the 18th Senate District before, nothing has changed that would move it from the tossup column. Republican Dan Feyen (Fond du Lac) handily won his primary and will go head-to-head with Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris (Oshkosh). Past history in this district shows razor thin margins of victory for the winner and if it becomes the only true competitive race, both sides will continue to pour in money until the end. If Harris should pull off the victory, the Senate Democrats would still have to win two additional seats to regain power. If you factor in that Harris starts with a significant fundraising advantage of around $100,000 after the primary and stronger name ID from being a sitting elected official, he looks like a slight favorite.

So if the Harris race falls their way, what is the next best opportunity to knock off a Republican incumbent? Our view is longtime Sen. Luther Olsen (R- Ripon) in the 14th. For context, no Democrat has represented the 14th Senate District since the civil war* (remember: narrow path). On the plus side, they have a recognizable candidate in Waupaca’s longest serving Mayor, Brian Smith, who appears to be a good fit for the district and the last time Olsen had a strong opponent his margin of victory was just over four percent.

Olsen has a 2-1 cash on hand advantage but he is far behind most of his Republican incumbent colleagues facing challenges with a reported $76k on hand. A $40K deficit is something that can be erased quickly if third party groups see an opportunity and decide to get involved. And it is expected that these groups from both sides of the aisle will play to some extent in the 14th. For Smith to win, he can’t rely on presidential turnout having a major impact, this has not helped any Democrat win in the 14th before. There would have to be an erosion of support for Olsen that’s been happening over time, an anti-incumbent atmosphere (which isn’t evident), a specific event onerous enough that makes voters want to toss him out and finally an influx of money timed such that it provides a distinct advantage for the challenger. If all of that happened combined with Clinton and Feingold surging at the end to double digit victories, Smith could win. None of those things are farfetched individually, but all or most of them happening appears unlikely.

If flipping a seat held by Republicans since the Civil War is the second best option, their third option isn’t much better. Initially, Sen. Tom Tiffany (R- Hazelhurst) was the number two target heading into 2016, but three factors have made the 12th Senate District seat fall down the list on the likelihood it would flip. SSDCFirst, by many accounts, Donald Trump is doing very well in northeast Wisconsin where the 12th District sits. Some expect him to trounce Clinton in this area of the state. Second, the Democrats got off to a late start with Tiffany’s opponent, switching their initial candidate out mid-summer to a new candidate, Bryan Van Stippen, who starts off as a relative unknown in the district. Third, the money disparity is staggering. Last reports had Tiffany at $243k, and Van Stippen at 33k. Those factors make this seat even more difficult in some regards than the 14th. The reason this seat is in play is that the Democrats held the seat for 30 years prior to Tiffany’s 2012 election. A longtime Democratic seat in a presidential year against a first term incumbent who was involved in a couple contentious issues seems like a great opportunity for pickup. But it does not appear to be playing out this way in 2016.

Senate Republicans recognize their strong position going into the election year. Depending on how things progress in the next few weeks, they may take a more aggressive run at trying to knock of a Democratic incumbent. Such a takedown appears to be equally as sizeable from their perspective as well with their best two options being Patrick Testin against Sen. Julie Lassa (D- Stevens Point) in the Stevens Point based 24th District, and former Sen. Dan Kapanke running against Minority Leader Jen Shilling (D- La Crosse). The perceived vulnerabilities being that Lassa’s district is a swing district in central Wisconsin which may be fertile ground for Trump, and Sen. Shilling is being faced by the former Senator from her district who will have strong name ID and comparable resources.

In summary, to answer our initial question of whether or not the Senate Democrats can take back the majority in 2016, we believe it is very unlikely. It is not going out on a limb to predict that the state Senate will come back with a Republican majority of 18 or 19 seats, but legislative races don’t often catch the voters’ attention until mid-October be sure to watch for more coverage of these races in Tidbits and on our 2016 Election Update throughout the election season.