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Wisconsin Dems look to make gains in Legislature

Come Election Day, all eyes in Wisconsin will be on the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But voters face a choice likely to shape their lives closer to home — whether to hand Republicans or Democrats control of the state Legislature.

Here are the key things to know about state legislative races:

WHO CONTROLS THE LEGISLATURE RIGHT NOW?

Republicans have had complete control of state government since 2011, when Scott Walker won the governor’s office and the GOP won majorities in the both the Senate and Assembly. The GOP enters Election Day with a 63-36 advantage in the Assembly and a 17-14 edge in the Senate.

WHY IS CONTROL SO IMPORTANT?

The majority sets the political agenda. Walker isn’t up for re-election until 2018, so if the GOP keeps both houses they’ll be able to pass anything they can agree on and Democrats will be powerless to stop them for the next two years. If the Democrats wrest control of either house, they can block Walker’s initiatives and create gridlock in Madison. The Legislature’s first task will be putting together the state budget; divided control could delay the spending plan’s approval beyond the beginning of the next fiscal year in July.

DO THE DEMOCRATS HAVE A SHOT IN EITHER CHAMBER?

Not in the Assembly. All 99 seats are up, but Republicans’ majority appears insurmountable. Seventeen GOP incumbents don’t even have opponents.

Things look a little brighter for Democrats in the Senate. Eight seats are in play, including five held by Republicans and three by Democrats. The Democrats need to take six of those eight to win the majority.

DO ASSEMBLY DEMOCRATS BELIEVE THEY CAN MAKE ANY HEADWAY?

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca has his sights on three open seats. He’s banking Mandy Wright can defeat Republican Patrick Snyder for a seat representing north-central Wisconsin. Wright held the seat until she lost it to Republican Dave Heaton in 2014. Heaton is not running for re-election. He also has high hopes that Dennis Hunt can beat Republican Rob Summerfield for an open seat representing northwestern Wisconsin and Scott Nelson can defeat Republican Shannon Zimmerman for an open seat representing the Hudson area across the border from Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

As for targeted GOP incumbents, there aren’t many. Democrats want to unseat freshman Todd Novak in southwestern Wisconsin’s 51st district and two-termer Kathy Bernier in the 61st, which includes parts of Eau Claire, Chippewa and Clark counties.

WHAT ABOUT THE SENATE?

Democrats have targeted an open seat in the 18th Senate district, which includes parts of Winnebago and Fond du Lac counties. Democrats have put their faith in Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris to defeat Fond du Lac Republican Dan Feyen. Walker signed a bill earlier this year barring county executives from serving simultaneously in the Legislature, which means Harris would have to trade his $102,800 county job for a $50,950 senator’s salary. Democrats complained the bill was designed to make Harris quit the race but Harris has refused to drop out.

Democrats also believe Sen. Luther Olsen, a moderate Republican from Ripon, Sen. Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst, who made a name for himself by writing a bill that relaxed Wisconsin’s iron mining regulations, and Sen. Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls are vulnerable.

HAVE REPUBLICANS TARGETED ANY SENATE DEMOCRATS?

They’re going after the Democrats’ most powerful figure in the chamber, Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling. She faces a challenge from Dan Kapanke for her seat representing the La Crosse area. Shilling took the seat from Kapanke during the 2011 recall elections spurred by anger over Walker’s public union restrictions.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Republicans also are targeting Julie Lassa, who represents the Stevens Point area, and Dave Hansen, who represents the Green Bay area.

Fitzgerald said he believes support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will ripple down the ballot and help the state GOP. He predicted Republicans will come back with 19 seats again this session.