In an election season when upset victories by fringe-right candidates have dominated the news, Milwaukee County Supervisor Chris Larson bucked the trend by mounting a successful challenge from the left. An outspoken progressive, Larson took 61 percent of the vote on Sept. 14 against moderate incumbent Jeff Plale in an expensive, nasty and closely watched Democratic primary in Wisconsin’s 7th Senate District.
Larson now faces Republican Jeff Ripp at the polls on Nov. 2 in a district that consistently votes Democratic. The district includes the East Side and Bay View neighborhoods of Milwaukee, which are believed to have the heaviest concentrations of gay residents in the state. In some East Side precincts, Larson outpolled Plale by five to one.
The Larson-Plale race split the LGBT community, with Fair Wisconsin and HRL-PAC endorsing Plale based on his past cooperation on legislative issues. Doug Nelson, executive director of AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, also endorsed Plale, who was instrumental in securing a $1.8 million grant for ARCW.
Wisconsin Gazette backed Larson.
“It’s important to Fair Wisconsin that we support the people who have been in the Legislature and have taken the tough votes time and again,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger. “We were proud to support Sen. Plale, who has done just that. We look forward to working with Chris Larson, who is fantastic on LGBT issues and will continue to fight for fairness.”
Plale became a pariah to progressive voters when he killed the Clean Energy Act by refusing to bring it up for a vote. In retaliation, he was assailed by a barrage of negative mailers that charged he was hostage to Big Oil and other anti-environmental interests. The Potawatomi tribe reportedly provided heavy financial support for the mailers.
“We’ve got a pretty good shot of having a state senator who’s independent of corporate lobbyists and big polluters,” Larson told a cheering crowd during his victory party at Bay View’s Bold Yet Original Studio, 2246 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
In the Democratic primary for Milwaukee sheriff, incumbent Dave Clarke beat back a strong challenge from MPD Lt. Chris Moews, who was endorsed by the Milwaukee County Democratic Party, WiG and other progressive interests and labor organizations. Fewer than 4,000 votes separated the unknown Moews from the high-profile Clarke, who tallied 53 percent of the vote.
Throughout Wisconsin, as in other states, voter turnout was much higher in Republican than in Democratic races, signaling possible trouble ahead for Democrats in November. A total of 614,321 Republican votes were cast in the top race on the ticket – the race for governor – compared with 233,119 Democratic gubernatorial votes.
One factor affecting turnout in that race was the hotly contested primary on the Republican side. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett faced only nominal opposition in his Democratic gubernatorial primary but on the Republican side, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker was locked in a sometimes-fierce battle with former congressman Mark Neumann.
Barrett, who is pro-equality, received 80 percent of the vote, while Walker racked up a commanding 59-percent victory over Neumann. Both Walker and Neumann are strongly opposed to LGBT rights.
Democratic strategists tried to paint Walker as badly wounded by his primary battle, but his victory margin was higher than expected and political observers expect the gubernatorial race to be both bruising and close. LGBT voters could prove pivotal in the contest.
In a victory that was applauded by the state’s Democratic leadership, primary voters chose Assembly Leader Tom Nelson, who represents Appleton, as Barrett’s running mate. Party leaders said Nelson brings to the ticket both geographic balance and successful campaign experience in a Republican district.
Nelson, who was endorsed by WiG, received an impressive 52 percent of the vote in a four-way race that included pro-LGBT candidates Henry Sanders and state Sen. Spencer Coggs. Fair Wisconsin and HRL-PAC declined to make an endorsement in the contest. In an opinion piece that appeared in WiG, openly gay state Rep. Mark Pocan urged LGBT voters not to support Nelson.
Tea Party-backed multi-millionaire Ron Johnson easily secured the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate and is expected to outspend Democratic pro-equality incumbent U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold by four-to-one in the general election.
“TV ads shouldn’t decide this election,” Feingold said in a statement following Johnson’s victory. “The people of Wisconsin should decide this election, so let’s give them the debates they deserve.”
Feingold has accepted invitations to participate in six debates against Johnson, who dodged 12 debates during his primary race, according to Democrats.
Pro-equality state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, took 85 percent of the vote in her primary race in the state’s 7th Congressional District. Lassa will face Sean Duffy, a former star of MTV’s “The Real World,” for the seat being vacated by Democrat David Obey. Duffy was the first candidate in the 2010 election cycle to receive Sarah Palin’s endorsement.
None of the Republican candidates running on Sept. 14 reached out to the state’s LGBT voters or expressed support for any of the issues important to them. But Belanger said that overall Wisconsin had elected a strong slate of pro-equality Democrats going into the Nov. 2 general election.
“We’re going to be redoubling our efforts to make sure that we maintain our pro-fairness majorities and elect a pro-equality governor so we can keep taking steps forward,” Belanger said. “We have an opportunity to not only protect but expand our fairness majority. The LGBT community has so much at stake in this election that it’s important that everybody get out and vote for pro-fairness candidates.”