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Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald both said it weeks ahead of the election: Donald Trump would help, not hurt, the Republican legislative leaders build their majorities.
Democrats scoffed, but that’s just what happened.
Republicans dominated state legislative races — maintaining their majorities in the Senate and Assembly and growing them to levels not seen in decades.
Republicans have had complete control of state government since 2011, and the Nov. 8 victories — coupled with Scott Walker’s continued presence in the governor’s office — ensure the GOP will run everything for at least another two years.
“We certainly benefited from the Trump phenomenon,” Fitzgerald told the AP on Nov. 9. “I could see it early this summer. (Republican) candidates kind of embraced that instead of shying away from it.”
Democrats didn’t have much hope of gaining control of either chamber.
A law Republicans passed in 2011 redrew legislative district boundaries to consolidate Democratic power in a minimal number of districts, leaving only a handful of true swing districts.
In the Assembly, the GOP held an insurmountable 63–36 advantage heading into Election Day.
Still, Democrats saw a chance to make at least some gains in the Senate, where Republicans held an 18–14 edge with one open seat. They set their sights on the vacant seat and Republican Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon, one of the last GOP moderates in the chamber.
But their plans fell apart as soon as returns began flowing in on election night. Not only did no Republican incumbents lose, GOP challenger Dan Feyen bested the popular Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris for the open seat that was considered the Dems best bet. And Patrick Testin knocked off incumbent Democrat Julie Lassa of Stevens Point to give Republicans a 20–12 advantage, their biggest majority since 1971.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, who spearheaded the Democrats’ Senate campaigns, had no immediate comment when asked for thoughts on how Republicans were able to win so many seats. Shilling had her own problems. The morning after her election,
her race against Republican challenger Dan Kapanke was excruciatingly close. Returns showed her leading by just 58 votes.
Shilling declared victory, but Kapanke did not concede.
Taking out Shilling would have been a huge coup for Republicans, offering a modicum of revenge for Kapanke, who lost the seat to Shilling in a 2011 recall spurred by anger over Walker’s signature collective bargaining restrictions.
A Shilling loss would leave Senate Democrats rudderless. A Kapanke win also would give Republicans a 21-seat majority, their biggest advantage since 1967, before humans walked on the moon.
As WiG went to press, it seemed likely Kapanke would seek a recount.
Meanwhile in the Assembly, Vos said back in September that he initially thought Trump, with his brash style and jaw-dropping remarks about women and immigrants, would hurt down-ticket Republicans.
But the billionaire businessman was actually bringing out conservative voters, Vos said. He predicted Trump would create a “small positive” for them.
Indeed, Republicans didn’t lose any Assembly seats and Mondovi Mayor Treig Pronschinske defeated Democrat Chris Danou of Trempealeau to bring the GOP majority to 64–35.
You’d have to go all the way back to 1957 to find a GOP Assembly advantage that large.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, who was one of Trump’s biggest critics early in the campaign season, said Trump drew people who hadn’t voted in years to the polls. Vos said during a news conference that he was proud Trump was on the Republican ticket.
“So yes, Donald Trump being on the ticket was a help,” Vos said. “We said that over the course of the summer. When I spoke publicly I knew he would be a benefit to our candidates.”
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha issued a statement calling the election “gut-wrenching and surprising.”
“Our state was swept in a Trump wave,” Barca said. “Democrats will never cease to be a voice for all the people — especially those who woke up this morning feeling alienated and powerless in their own country.”
Republicans’ first task when the legislative session begins in January will be crafting the 2017–19 state budget.
Perhaps the biggest challenge they’ll face is figuring out how to plug a $1 billion shortfall in the state’s road-building and maintenance fund.
Walker wants to deal with the shortfall by delaying work on major projects and borrowing; Fitzgerald backs that approach. Vos, though, has called it a short-term political solution that will exacerbate delays on southeastern Wisconsin freeways, setting up an intraparty squabble even before legislators take their oaths of office.
Fitzgerald and Vos said Republicans in both houses will have to prepare for ripple effects from changes Trump will make to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.