Wisconsin Election Preview: State Senate

With the election only a week away, Wisconsin polling between Trump and Biden remains consistent as insiders await Wednesday’s Marquette poll to see if any final momentum swings can be detected.  Trump is making multiple stops in the state over the final weeks while Biden has mostly sent surrogates since his September visits to Kenosha and Manitowoc.

We’ve already written about that race and the factors that may play into what the polling to this point means.  An additional piece to the Wisconsin puzzle that we did not note is what appears to be a decline of Trump’s strength in a number of down ballot legislative races. All signs appear to suggest that it is a bad sign of Trump’s relative strength throughout the state if a number of these Republican held legislative seats that were not competitive in 2016 and are competitive now.  Trump beat Clinton by less than 23,000 votes, or less than 1 percent of the total vote in Wisconsin.  If the money being spent in legislative races is any indication of competitiveness throughout the state, the pathway for Trump to win Wisconsin becomes nearly invisible.

The silver lining in the potential Trump defeat for Republicans is that even if Biden were to carry Wisconsin with a victory in line with the polling averages show, approximately 6 percent, their majorities in both the Senate and Assembly will not come close to being threatened.

Check back later this week for our take on the state Assembly races!

State Senate

Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the State Senate.  Regardless of what happens at the top of the ticket, they are expected to come back with between 18 and 22 members with much of the conventional wisdom believing it will be between 19 and 21.  There is significance in that “22” number being in play as that would make the Senate veto-proof.  As such, Gov. Evers and Democrats have put together a robust “Save the Veto” effort to protect that from happening.  This cycle also takes place against the backdrop of Majority Leader Fitzgerald leaving his position (of running the Senate and the elections) to run for a Congressional seat he is expected to win.

In addition to Fitzgerald leaving, the Senate is also seeing retirements from Senators Risser, Olsen, Miller, Hansen, Tiffany and Shilling.

Democratic seat in play

The Democrats picked up a surprising victory in a 2019 Special Election to replace outgoing Senator Sheila Harsdorf when Patti Schachtner defeated Adam Jarchow in the northwestern Wisconsin seat.  While that election was a big win at the time, on the numbers, it is a difficult seat for Democrats to maintain in a November election with normalized turnout. Current Republican Representative Rob Stafsholt is running against Schachtner and Stafsholt is the favorite to win the seat.

Competitive Open Seats

The Democrats also have the bad luck of having to defend two open seats in competitive districts after departures from long time Senators Jennifer Shilling and Dave Hansen.   In the La Crosse seat Republican Dan Kapanke is running again.  Kapanke nearly knocked off Shilling in 2016, losing by less than 100 votes. He also held the seat between 2005 and 2011 before he lost to Shilling in a Special Election.  Kapanke faces Brad Pfaff for the second time as Kapanke defeated Pfaff in a close race in 2004.  With a win, Pfaff, who most recently was the Secretary-designee of the Department of Consumer Protection, Trade and Agriculture would enter a Senate that controversially voted against his nomination to the Secretary post.  A move that made him available to run for a seat he is now favored to win.

Senate District 30 is a Green Bay area seat that was held by Dave Hansen for 20 years.  A tough district for Democrats, Hansen had bi-partisan appeal that kept that seat safe during years (like 2016) where many Democrats lost.  Now that he is retiring, the seat is truly a toss-up between Dave Hansen’s nephew, Jonathon Hansen and attorney Eric Wimberger who narrowly lost to Dave Hansen in 2016.  Democrats always feared the day when Dave Hansen retired because they knew they were likely to lose the seat, but the 2020 environment in northeast Wisconsin may result in good timing for his nephew as Trump’s strong 2016 numbers have taken a bit of a dip in the district.  With a week to go, this one could go either way.

Republican seats in play

As of late, two Republican incumbents have popped up on the radar with what appear to be competitive contests.  Longtime Senator Alberta Darling, and freshman Senator Pat Testin are both seeing an influx of dollars coming in on behalf of their opponents.

Darling who has been in the Senate since 1993 represents the type of suburban district that appears to be where Trump is struggling on a national level.  Whether or not this district is ripe for the picking remains to be seen, but there has been an uptick in dollars spent in the last few weeks.  Darling is being challenged by Neil Plotkin, a small-business owner and political newcomer.  Polling has the race within the margin of error and political ads on both sides are increasing.  While the race appears close, this would be considered a huge upset as Democrats were not even able to field a candidate against her in either 2012 or 2016.  Darling has been the Co-Chair of the Joint Finance Committee for the last four budgets and is a well-known entity in her district, the fact that this seat is in play is a furtherance of shifting dynamics in suburban districts.

While Trump’s victory in Wisconsin in 2016 was a surprise to many, a less talked about surprise took place when Republican Pat Testin knocked off heavily favored incumbent Democrat Julie Lassa in her central Wisconsin Senate district.  Unlike Darling’s seat, this is a more rural area that while traditionally Democrat, has been trending Republican over the years. Testin beat Lassa by 4,000 votes and until recently was believed to be cruising to re-election against retired Stevens Point cop, Paul Piotrowski.  Piotrowski and those supporting him are spending like they have a chance, and polling in this race also shows it within the margin of error.  The district trends are in Testin’s favor, and he is known for working hard, but Piotrowksi is a good candidate who could potentially ride in on a blue wave if one materializes.

Bottom Line

As we stated in the beginning, the 2020 map favors republicans.  Their best-case scenario has them holding incumbents, sweeping the open seats, and knocking off Schachtner getting to that magic number of 22.  The Democrats are hoping for a blue wave that allows them a reverse scenario that would bring them within one seat of the majority and on the cusp of winning it back for the first time since the 2009-10 session.

We’ll land somewhere in between, likely at 19 or 20 with a new Majority Leader and a number of new faces in the Senate chamber.