The Fight for 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 two summers of recalls has been well documented. Incumbent senators Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac) and Dan Kapanke (R-La Crosse) were defeated in Recall Elections in August of 2011 and Van Wanggaard (R-Sturtevant) was recalled in June 2012.

Democrats currently have a 17-15 majority with the vacancy created by Rich Zipperer leaving the State Senate to become Gov. Scott Walker’s deputy chief of staff.

This fall half the Senate is up for reelection and either party could win control of the Chamber.

At a recent luncheon Sen. Majority Leader Mark Miller (D-Monona) and Sen. Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) discussed what each of them views as the top races to watch.

Video of the entire luncheon is available from WisconsinEye. summarized the event as follows:

Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, likes his party’s odds to regain the Senate majority through the northeastern Wisconsin 12th District, where Hazelhurst state Rep. Tom Tiffany is seeking to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover.

Fitzgerald argued at a luncheon last week that neither party thought Phelps attorney Susan Sommer would come out of the Dem primary, and that it’s extremely rare for a sitting Assembly member to lose an open Senate district.

“Tom is working very hard, and I think he’s going to win that, which I think brings us back to the majority,” said Fitzgerald.

Senate Majority Miller Mark Miller, D-Monona, conceded that the party is running from behind against Tiffany. But he said Tiffany has lost twice before in bids for the 12th, and that President Obama won the district in 2008.

He also noted the presence of Libertarian candidate Paul Ehlers on the ballot in the Northwoods seat.

“If you ever asked Marlin Schneider what can happen in a three-way race, a lot can happen up there,” Miller said, referring to the longtime Wisconsin Rapids state representative’s loss in a 2010 race that included an independent challenge from a former Dem primary rival.

Miller also said all his incumbent members were in good shape to return to the Capitol next year, adding two other top GOP targets have “comfortable leads” over their opponents.

He said Sen. Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, has “unprecedented outreach to her community” in the 18th District.

But Fitzgerald said the 18th is a Republican district “no matter what numbers you look at,” and that GOP candidate Rick Gudex has long been deeply involved in local politics.

Fitzgerald also called John Macco a “top tier” challenger in the Green Bay-area 30th District against Sen. Dave Hansen.

“Senator Hansen is one of those guys that I think is a survivor; he seems to hang in there all the time,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think there’s some different dynamics happening up in the (Fox) Valley right now.”

Fitzgerald noted Gov. Scott Walker’s strong performance in that part of the state in the June 5 recall election, and said U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s elevation to the national GOP ticket has changed the dynamics of the entire Republican slate.

Miller countered that recent polling has shown Obama and Madison’s Tammy Baldwin with leads in their respective races at the top of the ticket, and that those numbers are “going to do nothing but help our candidates down-ticket.”

Fitzgerald conceded it’s up for debate whether Wisconsin is truly a national battleground, but said he hasn’t seen any coattail effects from national Dem candidates in Senate Republicans’ polling.

“Romney — that ticket — is not softening in those seats, especially in the 18th and the 30th, like some people are saying is happening statewide,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald also said Bill Feehan and Scott Noble, respectively, could provide strong challenges to Sens. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, and Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, saying both incumbents could have problems in unfamiliar territory brought in through redistricting.

He also identified the redistricted and strongly Dem 22nd District as a potential sleeper race, where he said Pam Stevens, a former Kenosha school board member, has drawn attention from national Republicans as a female African-American GOP candidate. She’s challenging Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie.

Miller, meanwhile, commended his candidates running against incumbents Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, — Tanya Lohr and Jim Ward, respectively — in heavily GOP districts.

“Whenever you have a candidate that’s working extraordinarily hard and exceeding expectations, that’s one where unusual things can happen,” Miller said.

Fitzgerald predicted his party would come back to Madison in January with a majority of 18 or 19 members, while Miller predicted a Dem edge of just one vote.

Regardless of their forecasts, both senators said they don’t believe Wisconsin will see another wave election after swings to Dems in 2008 and then Republicans in 2010.

“Since then, I think it’s really difficult for anybody to predict exactly how Wisconsin’s going to shake out,” Fitzgerald said.
Miller said he thinks Nov. 6 will be a “very close election typical of what we usually see.”

A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says there are so few competitive districts because of redistricting. The graphic below from the Journal Sentinel shows how the political margins were altered to reduce the number of “swing” districts.