August 9, 2016 will mark the earliest primary day in Wisconsin for fall elections in the modern era. Whether or not this will have an effect on turnout remains to be seen as summer vacation is still in full swing and the highly charged presidential primary elections have ended and switched their focus to November.
This is the third August primary election since the Wisconsin legislature moved the elections from September to August, and the earliest one of those three. Some areas of the state won’t see much in the way of competitive races, but there still are a few races both at the federal level and the state level that are capturing some attention.
Notable partisan primary races to watch include:
U.S. Congress: 1st District Republican Primary, Incumbent Paul Ryan vs. Paul Nehlen
While it would be considered a titanic upset if Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan were knocked off, Speaker Ryan is still taking his challenger, Paul Nehlen a Delavan businessman seriously. As evidenced from former Congressional Majority Leader Eric Cantor being beaten in a primary in 2014, partisan primaries can be unpredictable for those in leadership. All available polling to this point shows Speaker Ryan with a comfortable lead, and he has significant buys running on television in the southern Wisconsin district. Nehlen, who is heavily focusing his campaign on anti-establishment and immigration issues, is also on television and he is aggressively going after Speaker Ryan on the issue.
U.S. Congress: 8th District Republican Primary open seat, Frank Lasee vs. Mike Gallagher
When Congressman Reid Ribble decided to retire from his seat it left one of Wisconsin’s few competitive congressional districts up for grabs. A number of names swirled as possibilities on both sides of the aisle but in the end only three real candidates emerged. State Sen. Frank Lasee will take on retired Marine and market strategist Mike Gallagher. The winner of the primary will face off against Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson.
Many are expecting a close race between Lasee and Gallagher but with low turnout, an early primary and only moderately known candidates, the outcome seems unpredictable. Lasee should have better name recognition going in from his years as a state legislator but Gallagher appears to have support from much of the district’s Republican establishment including an endorsement from Congressman Ribble. Gallagher has also had markedly better fundraising numbers. Both are on the airwaves but it is hard to gauge how much of an imprint they are making during the summer months. Insiders are predicting that Gallagher has the upper hand (largely because of his fundraising haul), but a Lasee victory would only be considered a minor upset.
State Senate: 4th District Democratic Primary, Incumbent Lena Taylor vs. Assemblyman Mandela Barnes
Rumors about a primary for Sen. Lena Taylor seem to have surfaced every cycle since she took the Milwaukee based Senate seat in 2004, but this time those rumors came to fruition as sitting Assembly Rep. Mandela Barnes gave up his seat to challenge the veteran senator. Taylor has been a power player in the Senate Democratic caucus as long as she’s been in office including a number of stints on the Joint Finance Committee including when her party was in the majority and the minority. Barnes was elected to the Assembly in 2012 and has been a rising star in the Democratic minority caucus since his time there. Taylor’s extended time advocating for the district gives her a minor edge, but Barnes is tapped into some important grassroots groups in the district and has built a solid campaign war chest. This is another race where insiders believe a Taylor win is slightly more likely, but Barnes coming through would not be a surprise. The primary winner in this seat will be the senator.
State Senate: 18th District Republican Primary, Dan Feyen vs. Mark Elliott
Retiring Senator Rick Gudex left an opening in a highly competitive district when he announced his retirement from the Fond du Lac/Oshkosh area seat last fall. Mark Elliot is a former pastor who ran a close race against Representative Gordon Hintz in 2014, he will take on Dan Feyen, a GOP activist and Fond du Lac County Republican Party Chair. This race appears to be a true tossup. Elliot has outraised Feyen and started with better name ID from his 2014 race, but Feyen has been endorsed by Gudex and appears to be the beneficiary of a third-party spending group running ads on his behalf.
The primary winner will face another tough race as they are expected to take on Democrat, Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris who will start with a significant edge in campaign dollars and name recognition in the toss-up seat. Before the general starts, Harris must first win his Democratic primary against Oshkosh Area School Board member and Oshkosh professor John Lemberger.
State Assembly: 9th District Assembly Primary, Incumbent Josh Zepnick vs Marisabel Cabrera
There are a number of primary races throughout Wisconsin in Assembly races that will result in new legislators being elected, but this south side Milwaukee primary appears to be one of the few, if not the only one where an incumbent in the state Assembly has a significant challenge. Zepnick, who has been in office since 2003 is fighting hard to retain his seat against Cabrera who serves on the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission. Election watchers are noting Zepnick’s third place finish out of three in a February 2016 race for Milwaukee’s City Council as evidence that he could be in major trouble. Zepnick finished with nine percent of the vote in that race which some view as a harbinger of things to come.