After years of disheartening failures, Democrats insist 2016 is the year the tide turns in the state Capitol.
Democrats have been relegated to the statehouse sidelines since the 2010 elections, when Gov. Scott Walker was first elected.
Republicans also captured both houses of the Legislature in that election — and haven’t looked back since. Republicans now hold a 19-14 edge in the state Senate, and their biggest Assembly majority, 63-36, since the Eisenhower administration.
The legislative majorities were what enabled the enactment of Walker’s sweeping agenda: to curtail collective bargaining, partially repeal the prevailing wage, freeze property taxes and college tuition, slash college and university funding, and send more money to private voucher schools.
As lawmakers turn toward campaigning, Democrats see a chance to roll back those legislative majorities this fall. They envision two statewide, top-of-ticket races — the presidential and U.S. Senate contests — playing out in their favor. They also expect to benefit from what they describe as voter unrest with the state’s economy and the unpopularity of Walker’s agenda.
“I think it’s a combination of another favorable political environment for Democrats and the cumulative effect of the overreach we’ve seen from Republicans in the last six years,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki. “(Voters) are seeing a Republican caucus focus on things that don’t affect their lives — whether it’s voter ID, whether it’s (about) John Doe investigations, whether it’s open records. All of these things are kind of what happens when you have one-party control for a long time.”
But Republicans rightly say they’ve heard this story before. Democrats vowed to roll back GOP legislative influence in the 2011 recalls and the 2012 and 2014 general elections, yet Republicans now wield more statehouse clout than they have in decades. They also adopted legislative district boundaries in 2011 that have greatly aided their quest to retain control of the Legislature.
Assembly Republicans faced a similar headwind in the 2012 election, when Democratic President Barack Obama carried the state and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin won statewide. Yet the GOP retained the same Assembly majority they had going into the election, 60 seats.
“Assembly Republicans have had a track record of winning in tough — and better — environments, because we have candidates who know that it’s all about local connections,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
A key unanswered question in this election is who the Republican presidential nominee will be.
If it’s front-runner Donald Trump, GOP leaders admit it could hurt other Republicans on the ticket.
“The big challenge for this cycle is, you just don’t know what effect the top of the ticket will have on down,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
Senate will be battleground
Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly, optimistic as they are, won’t predict their party will regain control of either chamber this fall.
The Senate, where Republicans have a 19-14 majority, is where Democrats have the better shot at regaining control.
Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, highlighted three seats as pickup opportunities for her party: Senate District 18, an open seat; Senate District 12, now represented by Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Senate District 10, represented by Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls.
Democrats would need to win all three to wrest control of the Senate — something Shilling isn’t willing to pledge.
“I always like to under-promise and over-deliver,” Shilling said. “This is a several-election-term plan that we want to implement.”
Republican strategist Brian Fraley said if Trump is atop the ticket, Senate Democrats could see that as an opportunity to secure a majority.
But a wrench in that plan could be Shilling’s own re-election, he said. Former GOP Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse is challenging Shilling.
“He’s by far the best candidate that the Republicans could have recruited,” said Fraley of Kapanke, a businessman who represented most of the area until he was defeated in a 2011 recall by Shilling. “At the very least, it’s going to force Jennifer Shilling to spend more time worrying about her own re-election and less time focusing on helping the members of her caucus.”
Part of the Democrats’ strategy includes getting Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris elected to the 18th District seat being vacated by outgoing Sen. Rick Gudex, R-Fond du Lac. The GOP candidates are activist Daniel Feyen and pastor and small business owner Mark Elliott, who will square off in the August primary.
The specter of Harris’ candidacy prompted Fitzgerald to push a bill that prohibits county executives from also serving in the state Legislature — which would force Harris to resign from his county post should he prevail in November.
A number of lawmakers — including some Republicans — characterized the bill as being driven by politics.
“I think it was a good candidate recruitment on their level, and I think the bill that seemed to specifically target him was an unforced error on the part of Republicans. But the Republicans have a competitive primary there as well,” Fraley said.
Trump factorcould play role
Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, acknowledges it’s “unlikely” Democrats could gain control of the Assembly in the 2016 election. But Barca said he’s confident Democrats will make significant inroads.
Fraley agreed, saying it “would not be shocking to see them cut a few seats down.”
Barca’s targeted districts are mostly clustered in western Wisconsin, west of Madison or near Eau Claire.
The 8th U.S. Congressional District race could have an impact on some of the races down ticket, Fraley said. The incumbent, Reid Ribble, isn’t seeking re-election and the district can be competitive, though it leans slightly Republican.
GOP candidates for the seat include state Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, former U.S. Marine Corps Captain Mike Gallagher and Terry McNulty of Forestville. Among Democrats, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson has announced his candidacy.
“Whether it’s coattails or overshadowing the candidates’ ability to get messages out, you might see a Republican lose with Trump at the top of the ticket and a very competitive 8th Congressional race soaking up the resources,” said Fraley.
Then there’s the possibility of a Trump factor. The GOP front-runner is deeply unpopular in Wisconsin, with 70 percent viewing him unfavorably in the most recent Marquette Law School Poll.
Asked if Trump as the GOP nominee could hurt the party’s chances down-ballot, Vos said “it definitely could” in statewide races.
But Vos — who endorsed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for president last month, after initially backing U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — said the Trump drag may not translate to legislative races because so many Democratic voters are packed into urban districts in Madison, Milwaukee, Racine and Green Bay.
Western Wisconsin was among Trump’s few strongholds in the state’s April 5 GOP primary. That region also is home to many of the legislative districts that could be in play this fall, Vos noted.
“There are significant chunks of Wisconsin where Donald Trump and his message of being an outsider resonates pretty well,” Vos said.
Contact reporter Mark Sommerhauser at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6122. Contact reporter Molly Beck at email@example.com or 608-252-6135.