Recall Elections Key to Control of the State Senate

Immediately after the 2010 elections, many observers viewed the State Senate as the Republican stronghold least likely to change hands in the years to come. Yes, the Assembly Republicans had a very large partisan seat advantage, but Senate Republicans would be on the offensive and sitting in districts with wider voter margins in their favor thanks to the regularly scheduled redistricting. An already formidable 19-14 Senate margin was nearly guaranteed to increase and then solidify.

Then came February 2011. The story of what happened after the signing of Act 10, the budget repair bill, including the summer of recalls (1st edition) which resulted in the State Senate’s comfortable 19-14 margin slimming to 17-16, has been well documented.

Now as we head into the second edition of summer recalls, the State Senate is clearly up for grabs. Though the recalls are only the first step toward control in 2013, they will go a long way in determining who has the upper hand heading into the regular November elections, where half the Senate is up for election.

Conventional wisdom is that Senate Democrats need to win two of the four recalled seats in order to have a majority after November. Democratic Senator Holperin’s retirement, at this point in time, makes Republican Representative Tom Tiffany a heavy favorite to win that open seat, and the most competitive seat after that is Democratic Jess King’s Oshkosh swing seat.

While there are other scenarios and races that could materialize (Barrett wins, appoints Republican Senator Dale Schultz to a position, opening a Democrat-leaning seat), two seats are necessary to provide any comfort to Senate Democrats that they will hold legislative power in 2013.

Here is how the four seats line up, listed in order of greatest opportunity for a flip to least:

SD 21 Sen. Van Wanggaard versus former Sen. John Lehman
The reason this seat pops up as the most likely to flip is based on three things: The frequency with which this district throws out its incumbent, historic Democratic candidate performance, and recent polling.

Very few, if any, Senate seats in Wisconsin have as storied and tumultuous history as does SD 21. In relatively recent history, the district has seen: a Majority Leader unexpectedly fall, and a successful recall election prompted by a vote on Miller Park financing resulting in the state Senate majority switching. That means this district has had three different Senators since 2002.

Two of those three Senators will face off for the second time in 19 months in the June 5 recall. Sitting Senator, Van Wanggaard, defeated his challenger, former Sen. John Lehman, in 2010 53 to 47 percent (approx. 3,000 votes).

The City of Racine is the population center of the district and it currently has the highest unemployment rate in the state. That statistic does not often bode well for an incumbent, though Lehman’s recent hold on the seat will not let him off the hook with voters in that regard.

Recent polling has shown both Wanggaard and Lehman in the lead, both within the margin of error. The latest finance reports show Wanggaard with a better than 2-1 cash on hand advantage.

SD 23 Sen. Terry Moulton versus former Rep. Kristen Dexter
Similar to SD 21, the race in SD 23 is a rematch from an earlier election. In 2008, Democrat Kristen Dexter beat then incumbent Republican Terry Moulton in a race for the Wisconsin Assembly. In 2010 Moulton knocked off then incumbent Pat Kreitlow (54-46%) to win the Senate seat up for recall, while Dexter lost her Assembly seat by less than 90 votes to current Rep. Kathy Bernier.

A largely rural seat spread through north-central Wisconsin and the Coulee Region appears conservative, but President Obama and Supreme Court Justice candidate Joanne Kloppenburg have more recently carried the district.

Moulton is better known in the district and has a 4-1 cash-on-hand edge. Recent polling shows Moulton with an advantage, but well within striking distance. In addition, recent polling suggests Walker has a distinct advantage over Barrett with regard to voter intensity in northern Wisconsin, which could benefit Moulton on Election Day if electors vote straight ticket.

SD 29 Republican Rep. Jerry Petrowski versus Democratic Rep. Donna Seidel
In 2010 Pam Galloway, a political neophyte, pulled off a significant upset when she knocked off then Majority Leader Russ Decker. Galloway was an active Senator who, in spite of her greenhorn status, was able to accomplish a great deal in her short time as Senator.

Shortly after the recall signatures against her had been gathered, Galloway surprised many by resigning her central Wisconsin seat and declining to run in the recall election. The GAB stepped in and said the recall election would proceed as a special election, setting the stage for two veteran Assembly members to go head to head.

Jerry Petrowski’s candidacy is a gift to Senate Republicans who would have had a much tougher time defending the lesser known Galloway. Petrowski has represented his Assembly District since 1998. Well known and well liked in the area, the former farmer fits the district well. Recent polling shows Petrowski with the largest lead of anyone in the four races and Petrowski has a 2-1 cash on hand advantage.

While Petrowski is the favorite, he has a tough opponent in Wausau area Representative Donna Seidel. Seidel has risen through the ranks of the Democratic leadership team since her election in 2004, and is well respected by Assembly members on both sides of the aisle. Many believe that Seidel would have been the favorite had she matched up against Galloway, but she is unquestionably the underdog against Petrowski.

SD 13 Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald versus challenger Lori Compas
Democrats bill this race as the ultimate “David vs. Goliath,” but with no slingshot that we know of. The district has an average Democratic performance around 40 percent, so it would take some sort of historic voting anomaly for Sen. Fitzgerald to not return to the Legislature. The intensity behind the race for governor should keep voter turnout high enough to preclude any sort of upset.

As this wild chapter of Wisconsin political history comes to a close in the next four weeks, Hamilton Consulting will continue to provide election analysis and updates.

For additional 2012 elections information, please visit Hamilton Consulting’s 2012 Recall Elections Webpage, or contact a Hamilton Consulting Group lobbyist.