Although overshadowed by Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, the Aug. 14 primary elections in Wisconsin set the stage for a critical U.S. Senate race and helped define the tenor of the state’s next legislative session.
Pro-equality challengers beat out several socially conservative incumbents in the Democratic Party, while anti-gay challengers lost resoundingly to pro-equality incumbents. On the whole, Democratic voters showed a clearly progressive bent, choosing the vast majority of candidates endorsed by Fair Wisconsin, Equality Wisconsin, Planned Parenthood, Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and other progressive groups.
“Equality Wisconsin is delighted with the results of (the) elections,” said Jason Burns, executive director of Equality Wisconsin. “It was a night when pro-equality candidates did exceptionally well all across the State of Wisconsin.”
The highest profile contest decided on Aug. 14 was on the Republican side of the aisle, where former Gov. Tommy Thompson won a contentious and closely fought GOP primary to represent the party in November’s U.S. Senate race. Thompson took 34 percent of the vote in a four-way contest, besting businessman Eric Hovde, who came in second with 31 percent, as well as former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, the Tea Party favorite, and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, a close ally of Gov. Scott Walker.
Prior to Election Day, the Republican Senate race had been considered too close to call.
Thompson will face out U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic nominee, in November. If she wins the race, Baldwin will become the first out senator in the nation and the first woman to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate.
Thompson, a popular four-term governor, focused his campaign on electability. His moderate record and name recognition made him the candidate Democrats and progressives least wanted Baldwin to face.
But having governed the state as a centrist, Thompson faces a dilemma similar to Romney’s in trying to persuasively shift his ideological course despite his pubic record. On Aug. 14, two-thirds of Republican voters chose a candidate who claimed to be farther to the right than Thompson. Will those voters turn out in large numbers to support Thompson in November?
Baldwin enjoys great cred with her base, but she will be cast as the stereotypical “tax-and-spend liberal” by the GOP. Baldwin’s challenge will be to overcome the opposition’s branding of her record to attract critical support from swing voters.
It’s unlikely that Thompson’s campaign will attempt to make Baldwin’s sexual orientation an issue, since it could draw attention to his own storied sexual indiscretions.
Both out candidates on the Aug. 14 ballot easily won their races. Democrat Mark Pocan, the openly gay state representative who followed Baldwin in representing the state’s 78th Assembly District, is now likely to follow her path to the halls of Congress as well. Baldwin stepped down as representative of the 2nd Congressional District in order to make her Senate bid.
Pocan took 72 percent of the vote in a four-way primary, giving him a victory margin of 50 percent over second-place finisher state Rep. Kelda Roys. Given the overwhelmingly Democratic make-up of the 2nd District, which includes Dane County, he faces only nominal GOP opposition in November, which all but assures him the seat.
Pocan rose to prominence in the Assembly as a member of the powerful Joint Finance Committee, where he played a leadership role in developing the state budget. Widely considered one of Wisconsin’s most effective progressive lawmakers, Pocan is known nationally for infiltrating and exposing the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a corporate-backed group that distributes cookie-cutter legislative measures, such as tax cuts for the wealthy, to right-wing state lawmakers; they then redraft the measures to conform to their states’ laws and propose them in their home legislatures in exchange for corporate financial support.
Pocan won the endorsements of top party leaders and numerous unions and progressive groups. He also outspent Roys, with $512,000 in net expenditures compared to Roys’ $388,000.
In the campaign’s final weeks, Pocan faced a slew of negative attack ads from Roys that many Democratic leaders strongly condemned. Among other inflammatory and misleading claims, Roys tried to link Pocan politically to Gov. Scott Walker and even to Koch Industries, which is one of the primary financial backers of ALEC.
The strategy appears to have backfired, however, given Roys’ shockingly low vote total, despite being the only woman in the race and having won the endorsement of EMILY’s List.
Pocan’s victory was an important one for LGBT citizens throughout the country.
“Rep. Pocan has been fighting for LGBT equality along with Fair Wisconsin since the very beginning, and we are confident that he will continue to do so in Washington,” said Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, in a prepared statement.
“As we advance to the general election in November, the choice for fairness is clear,” she said. “Rep. Pocan, in his bid for the U.S. House of Representatives, will join Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in her U.S. Senate bid on the ballot to put the middle class first and fight for a fairer economy where hard work is rewarded.”
Only four out gays or lesbians currently serve in the U.S. House and none serve in the Senate. In addition to Baldwin leaving the House, longtime U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., is retiring. Those exits would leave Jared Polis, D- Colo., and David Cicilline, D-R.I., as the only two out congressional members – if Cicilline survives what is predicted to be a tough re-election battle.
By winning his primary race, Pocan ensured that at least one of the four seats will continue to be represented by an out member of the LGBT community. Several other out candidates’ names will appear on congressional ballots, including Mark Takano in California, Sean Patrick Maloney in New York, Richard Tisei in Massachusetts and Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona.
State Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa, who came out publicly as bisexual just weeks before the election, easily fended off challenger Laura Manriquez in a low-turnout race in Assembly District 8. Zamarripa received 596 votes (67 percent) in the majority Hispanic district, while Manriquez got 296 votes (33 percent).
Although she ran as a Democrat, Manriquez was endorsed by right-wing leaders and seemed to embrace some of the conservative agenda. She tried to make Zamarripa’s sexual orientation an issue by distributing a press release accusing the incumbent of using her sexual orientation to attract votes, even though Zamarripa’s coming-out was politically risky.
Millie Coby, another candidate running as a Democrat while pursuing a conservative social agenda, lost her attempt to unseat progressive state Rep. Sandy Pasch in Assembly District 10. Republicans eliminated Pasch’s previous district when they redrew the state’s political boundaries following the 2010 census. The redrawn District 10 included Shorewood, a white, affluent suburb that was part of Pasch’s old district, and coupled it with Milwaukee’s heavily African-American West Side neighborhoods.
High-profile black leaders, including state Rep. Beth Coggs and state Sen. Lena Taylor, threw their support behind community youth organizer Millie Coby in an effort to avoid losing an African-American seat in the Assembly.
But Coby, who is affiliated with a fundamentalist Christian church, opposes choice and advocates for a school voucher system – both key conservative positions. She also linked gays and lesbians with pedophiles on an Equality Wisconsin questionnaire and declined to answer a question about marriage equality.
Pasch, who is a leading equality supporter in Madison, prevailed in the race with 61 percent of the vote. Coby garnered only 33 percent. Pasch took 96 percent of the vote in Shorewood, where overall turnout was high at 32 percent.
Pasch celebrated her victory at Art Bar in Riverwest, a gay-owned establishment.
Two other African-American women in the District 10 race split a combined total of 7 percent of the vote.
Coggs stepped down from her first-term Assembly seat to run for her cousin Spencer Coggs’ state Senate seat following his election as city treasurer. But Coggs, who was co-endorsed by Equality Wisconsin and Fair Wisconsin along with Milwaukee County Supervisor Nikiya Harris, lost her race to the latter. Harris received the endorsement of both the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood.
The race between Coggs, who is part of a family political dynasty, and Harris, who is seen as having star potential, was hard fought. With more than 13,000 votes cast, Harris won the four-way race in Senate District 6 with 48 percent of the vote compared with Coggs’ 33 percent.
To the extent that the Coggs-Harris race represented the old guard against the new, the standard bearer against the more ideologically pure candidate, it reflected the 2010 state Senate race between former state Sen. Jeff Plale, a conservative Democrat, and his victorious challenger Sen. Chris Larson. Progressives made a strong showing across the board on Aug. 14.
In Assembly District 18, Evan Goyke, a young, unknown and unabashedly progressive candidate, took 37 percent of the vote in an eight-way race to win an open seat. In Assembly District 11, Mandela Barnes beat incumbent Jason Fields by campaigning on the latter’s support for school vouchers and his opposition to capping interest rates for payday lenders, who can legally charge more than 500 percent in annualized interest to the working poor who need such services.
Barnes called the Democratic Primary elections a “progressive sweep.”
“People are disappointed – they want new leaders,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The American Federation for Children, a group that promotes school vouchers, sent out mailers for Fields and other Democratic candidates, spending more than $100,000 in Milwaukee, MJS reported. AFC, which is associated with former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, a convicted felon, also backed Plale in 2010.
Despite all the money AFC spent, none of the right-wing group’s candidates won.
State Rep. Peggy Krusick lost her primary to Dan Riemer in Milwaukee’s 7th Assembly District after proposing that race should be removed as a factor in awarding higher education grants. During her tenure in the Assembly, Krusick consistently voted against equality, opposing the state’s domestic partner registry and backing the 2006 ballot initiative that prohibits same-sex couples from marrying or forming civil unions.