On Nov. 6, all 99 seats are up for grabs in the Wisconsin Assembly, where Republicans currently hold a 58-39 majority.
With newly redrawn districts that heavily favor the GOP, it’s unlikely that Democrats will pick up the 11 seats needed to regain control of the chamber. But it appears increasingly likely that Democrats will pick up enough seats to help progressives stall the agenda of the tea party extremists who currently command the Assembly. And a new crop of freshmen progressive legislators who won Democratic primaries last month will bring renewed vigor to the minority side of the aisle.
While Wisconsin leaders of both parties have focused on races for the U.S and state Senate, which Democrats hold by a single-vote margin, the dynamics of Assembly races have been quietly changing. Seats that Republicans nabbed unexpectedly during the right-wing wave election of 2010 are strongly in play, as are several open seats.
The shift has been most notable in southern and western districts of the state, according to Melanie Conklin, a volunteer for the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee. Under the best-case scenario, she said, Democrats would pick up a dozen seats, but she acknowledged that’s a long shot.
Although a Wisconsin sweep by President Barack Obama would help Assembly Democrats, Conklin said voters are paying unusual attention at the local level this year. The issues topping their concerns are education and jobs, she said – both areas where Democrats hold an advantage.
Education and jobs
“Voters are looking at what’s happened in Wisconsin over the past two years,” Conklin said. “They want to know why their representatives are taking money away from schools in their districts and sending it to private voucher schools.”
Conklin said voters see blue after learning that Republicans gave $2.3 billion to special corporate interests without tying it to job creation. In fact, after two years of complete Republican control, Wisconsin ranks at or near the very bottom of the states in job creation.
“Voters are asking, ‘Why should companies get tax breaks for cutting jobs and shipping jobs to China?” Conklin said. “If you’re going to tell voters that the state is financially broke and then give away $2.3 billion to wealthy corporations, you’d better have some jobs to show for it.”
Voters also are disturbed by the extremist social positions that Republicans have taken on issues such as women’s health and pay equity, Conklin said. The GOP killed legislation supporting women seeking equal pay for equal jobs. Republicans also shot down funding for organizations such as Planned Parenthood that provide low-cost and free cancer screenings to women without health insurance.
To avoid answering questions about these positions, Republican Assembly candidates are increasingly no-shows at forums and debates with their Democratic opponents, according to Conklin. For instance, at a recent forum in Assembly District 85, which includes Wausau, Democratic candidate Mandy Wright showed up to find an empty chair next to her instead of Republican Pat Snyder, a far-right radio personality. Rather than cancel the event, panelists questioned Wright and the Libertarian candidate. The Wausau Daily Herald covered the event under the headline, “Voter forum turns into Democrat show.”
Wright and Snyder are vying for a seat that became open when Democrat Donna Seidel decided not to seek re-election.
A great deal of the momentum for Assembly Democrats comes from the quality of candidates vying for office in this election cycle, as well as the hard work they’ve demonstrated on the campaign trail.
In Assembly District 44, which includes part of Janesville, Democratic candidate Deb Kolste knocked on more than 11,000 doors during her primary race, and she continues to knock on doors at a prodigious rate. As a result, party leaders believe she has a good chance at taking back a seat that was lost to Republican Joe Knilans in 2010.
District 44 is 60-percent Democratic and voted to recall Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year. Democrat Mike Sheridan held the Assembly seat for more than a decade prior to Knilans’ win.
Kolste, who served for three terms on the Janesville School Board, said her constituents are primarily concerned about job growth – or rather the lack of it under Republican leadership.
“I tell them that I’m not sure that the Republican approach of just giving corporate tax breaks is the way to spur jobs, especially since it hasn’t proven to be a job creator yet,” she said, adding that the majority of voters she speaks with agree with her.
In Assembly District 51, which includes the bulk of Iowa and Lafayette counties, Maureen May-Grimm, known locally as “Mo,” is working to unseat tea party Republican Howard Marklein. Although the district was redrawn to give Marklein an advantage, Grimm’s campaign manager Jake Rebholz said it remains about 54 percent Democratic.
Grimm, who’s in her second term on the Mineral Point School Board, is focusing on jobs and education.
“Our main campaign point is restoring fair funding to public education,” Rebholz said. “Marklein has sponsored bills that send tax dollars to fund private schools in the Milwaukee area – and that doesn’t sit well.”
In Assembly District 62, which includes portions of Racine, Caledonia and western Racine County, Melissa Lemke is vying for an open seat. If elected, she would join state Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa as an out member of the Assembly. Lemke is a public health educator and a researcher for UWM.
“They redistricted that race to make it tough for Democrats,” said Scott Spector, executive director of Wisconsin Progress. His organization recruits and trains progressive candidates for local and state office.
But, he added, “Melissa is just such a hard worker that I believe she will be successful. She’s made the seat competitive by raising a lot of money and knocking on a lot of doors.”
“It’s going wonderfully,” Lemke said of her campaign, adding that knocking on doors and meeting constituents is “the best part of the campaign” for her.
“People are responding to me well, and I think it’s because of the work ethic they see when I’m out there calling on them again and again.”
Although her district includes part of Paul Ryan’s congressional district, Lemke said her campaign’s success would ultimately depend more on the turnout for U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin.
“Because that race is so close, it’s going to be the big draw,” Lemke said. “That is probably the one that is most closely related to our race.”
In District 62, education ranks second behind jobs in terms of voters’ priorities, Lemke said. Her prescription for the economy is to enact tax breaks for start-ups, small businesses and the middle class rather than the wealthy.
Lemke’s opponent Tom Weatherston represents corporate interests. A motorcycle safety teacher, he was hand-picked for the office by state Rep. Robin Vos.
A “family values” leader whose second wife recently left him, Vos has been branded a “slumlord” in his district. He’s one of the state’s major conduits to the Koch-brothers financed American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes cookie-cutter laws on behalf of the corporate right and disseminates them to state legislatures through locals such as Vos. Weatherston’s defeat would be humiliating to Wisconsin’s right wing.
Kolste, Grimm and Lemke have all been endorsed by Fair Wisconsin. In addition to Lemke and Zamarripa, Democrat Marga Krumins, who came out on Facebook this summer, is running in Assembly District 97, which includes Waukesha.
Other Assembly races to watch:
District 42: Democrat Paula Cooper is taking on second-term Republican Keith Ripp in a district he won by 20 votes in 2008, although the boundaries have been redrawn to favor him. The district includes Columba County and the towns of Portage and Baraboo.
District 49: Democrat Carol Beals is taking on freshman Republican Travis Tranel in an area of southwestern Wisconsin that includes Platteville.
District 67: Democrat Deb Biebing hopes to unseat freshman Republican Tom Larson, who was honored by the American Conservative Union for his votes in the last Assembly session.
District 68: Democrat Judy Smriga is competing against freshman Republican Kathy Bernier. The district includes Chippewa Falls.
District 69: Democrat Paul Knoff is showing surprising strength against long-term incumbent Republican Scott Suder in this north-central district, which includes Abbotsford.
District 75: Democrat Stephen Smith is mounting a strong challenge to freshman Republican Roger Rivard in a district that includes Rice Lake. Before Rivard, the seat was held by Democrat Mary Hubler, who retired.