Democrats have momentum and an electoral mood tilting in their favor as they seek to overturn GOP majorities in the state Legislature this November.
Republicans, however, have money — a lopsided edge in campaign cash — and a map that gives Democrats few easy pickup chances.
Reasons for Democratic optimism are easy to spot. Polls show Republican President Donald Trump is not popular in Wisconsin. Both Democrats running statewide, gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, are leading in recent polls.
In the state Senate recent special elections bolstered Democrats’ hopes, flipping two seats from Republican control.
But those factors don’t necessarily translate to a good shot for Democrats to gain control of either legislative chamber, said Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political scientist who tracks state legislative races.
“Neither chamber looks like an ideal situation for Democrats to get back to a majority,” Burden said.
While Democratic gains are possible in the state Assembly, Republicans enjoy such a wide 64-35 margin in the chamber that a majority appears “out of reach” for Democrats, Burden said.
Assembly Republican and Democratic campaign groups didn’t respond to inquiries for this story.
The state Senate, which Republicans control 18-15, is more competitive. Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, sees reason for hope in November.
“Democrats feel we have been building momentum,” Shilling said in an interview. “We clearly feel there is energy and engagement, and we want to capitalize on the environment.”
Yet none of the 17 Senate seats up for grabs this fall offers Democrats a likely pickup. Of seven potentially competitive Senate districts, all were won by Trump in 2016.
It’s part of what Burden describes as the irony of this election for Democrats. At first blush, it seems to offer them a chance to make up some of their electoral losses since 2010.
But state Senate seats on this year’s ballot “just don’t give Democrats a lot of opportunities,” Burden said.
Then there’s the fundraising disparity.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, touted his caucus’ fundraising advantage over Senate Democrats. The campaign arm of Senate Republicans and Senate GOP candidates had more than a 3-to-1 advantage over Senate Democrats in available cash entering September, Fitzgerald said.
“Money matters,” Fitzgerald said, “and the ability to get your message out matters.”
Could Senate District 17 swing?
Senate District 17 is arguably the most competitive of any in the state Senate this fall.
The rural district sprawls from Wisconsin’s southwest corner to its center, covering Grant, Lafayette, Richland and Juneau counties, and parts of Green, Iowa, Monroe, Sauk and Vernon counties.
Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, is seeking a second term against Kriss Marion, a Blanchardville organic farmer and Lafayette County Board member.
Before Marklein, the area was represented by former Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican who wasn’t afraid to buck his party. It has swung between parties in recent statewide elections, backing Barack Obama in 2012, then Scott Walker in 2014 and Trump in 2016.
In an interview Marklein, an accountant, highlighted the awards he has won as a lawmaker and his work steering state money to local projects, such as an engineering center at UW-Platteville. Asked about Trump’s unpopularity, Marklein said he isn’t worried about it.
“I talk about myself — I’ve got nothing to do with anybody else,” Marklein said. “I don’t worry about things I cannot control.”
Shilling said Marklein doesn’t show the independence to which southwestern Wisconsin voters are accustomed.
“Howard Marklein is no Dale Schultz,” Shilling said. “He has been a rubber stamp for (Walker).”
Marion said economic development in her district is a cornerstone of her campaign. She also may be looking to tap into a lingering sense among rural Wisconsinites that their areas are being left behind. Marion said she’s emphasizing that schools and highways in the district aren’t getting their fair share of state resources.
“We are not getting the investment we need,” Marion said. “Our tax dollars are going elsewhere.”
Marklein has a roughly 7-to-1 advantage in cash on hand heading into September, recently filed campaign finance reports show. That enables Marklein to be “up on Madison TV as we speak, and his opponent is nowhere,” Fitzgerald said.
Marion said she understands she’ll never match Marklein in fundraising. But Marion said she’s confident “we have enough funds to get the word out.”
GOP counting on Trump voters
Among state Senate races this fall, the one that was closest in the 2016 presidential election was District 5 in suburban Milwaukee, where Trump won by about one percentage point amid criticism from some staunch conservatives. It’s represented by Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, who isn’t seeking re-election as she battles Baldwin, of Madison, in the U.S. Senate race.
State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, is the GOP nominee in the district. He faces Democrat Julie Henszey, a Wauwatosa corporate trainer and outdoor adventure guide.
It’s the sort of suburban district that long has voted Republican but has yielded more Democratic votes in the Trump era. Fitzgerald acknowledges retaining suburban voters, especially women, is “another challenge” with which Republicans must contend.
Shilling sees an opening in Vukmir’s district. She noted that Senate Democrats are leading with women candidates, including Henszey, Marion and Lee Snodgrass, who’s challenging Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, in Senate District 19 in the Fox Valley. Snodgrass is communications director for a local Girl Scouts chapter and chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Outagamie County.
Aside from the departing Vukmir, Sen. Alberta Darling, River Hills, is the only other female Republican senator, Shilling notes.
“If I’m a Republican woman, that does not necessarily reflect my world,” Shilling said.
Fitzgerald said the voters who helped Trump carry Wisconsin will be crucial to his party’s chances again this year. He hopes his party’s management of the state’s finances will be a selling point.
“We’re trying to remind voters: there’s a reason your property tax bill hasn’t been soaring,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re in a good position because of tough decisions Republicans have made over the last few years.”
Other GOP-held districts Democrats are targeting include District 9 along Lake Michigan, including Sheboygan and Manitowoc, where Democrat Kyle Whelton, a Sheboygan School Board member, wants to oust Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg.
Another is District 23 in northwest Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley, where Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, is not seeking re-election. There, Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, faces Democrat Chris Kapsner, a Boyceville doctor.
Democrats also seek to defend a key pickup made in the Senate District 1 special election. Its winner, Sen. Caleb Frostman, D-Sturgeon Bay, has a rematch with Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere.
Republicans have their eyes on a pair of pickup opportunities, including Senate District 25 along Lake Superior, now represented by Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland. James Bolen, a resort owner and director of the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce, is her Republican challenger.
Another is District 31, including part of Eau Claire and areas along the Mississippi River north of La Crosse. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, represents that district but isn’t seeking re-election after a failed bid for governor. Former state Rep. Jeff Smith is the Democratic nominee, and Mel Pittman, a Pierce County Board member, is the Republican.