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Two key Wisconsin Senate Democrats face challengers from within their own party as the Legislature’s Aug. 9 primary looms.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse and Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee are among a handful of lawmakers who will be fighting for their jobs in the election that will set the candidate lineup for November’s general election.
Shilling and Taylor are the only Senate incumbents who face challengers, but they’re the most prominent names in the primary in either house.
All 99 Assembly seats and 16 of the Senate’s 32 seats will be in play in November.
Jared Landry’s primary bid against Shilling is a long shot. She holds a key leadership position as Senate minority leader, shaping responses to Republican proposals and helping other Democrats campaign around the state.
The Associated Press’ attempts to reach Landry through possible listings for his home and cell phone were unsuccessful. In an interview with the La Crosse Tribune, he declined to criticize Shilling. He indicated that he planned to use the Senate as a springboard to run for governor and president.
Online court records show Landry has a lengthy misdemeanor criminal record, including convictions for fourth-offense operating while intoxicated, resisting an officer, marijuana possession, property damage and disorderly conduct. But he’s still eligible for office — only convicted felons are barred from running.
Although Taylor holds a leadership position as a member of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, she faces a much stiffer challenge from state Rep. Mandela Barnes of Milwaukee. He’s likely to receive national support through Wisconsin Working Families, the group that provided over $300,000 to back Sen. Chris Larson in his failed attempt to oust Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele earlier this year.
Taylor is known for her fiery temperament, as evidenced in speeches she’s made on both the Joint Finance Committee and the Senate floor.
Barnes said in a telephone interview that their district needs “transformative leadership.” She said Taylor voted for a bill that regulated payday loans but didn’t cap loan interest rates in 2010, voted for a bill allowing concealed carry in 2011 and introduced what he called a “takeover” bill in 2009 that would have allowed Milwaukee’s mayor to appoint the city’s school district superintendent.
Taylor said the payday loan bill did limit the amount of loans and lawmakers, adding that lawmakers often have to compromise and settle for bills that don’t go as far as they’d like. As for concealed carry, she said people have a right to bear arms. The school bill was an attempt to do something to improve Milwaukee schools, she said.
Taylor said Barnes is “Monday-morning quarterbacking” and instead should help her as she tries to improve conditions at Wisconsin’s youth prison in Irma rather than attack her.
On the Assembly side, Democrats Josh Zepnick and Leon Young, both of Milwaukee, Lisa Subeck of Madison and Sondy Pope of Mount Horeb all face primary challengers. Rep. Nancy Vander Meer of Tomah is the only Republican in either house in a primary.
Regardless of the primary results, Democrats will be hard-pressed to regain control of either house this fall. Thanks largely to a redistricting plan GOP lawmakers established in 2011 that consolidated their power in districts across the state, Republicans hold a 19–14 edge in the Senate and an all but insurmountable 63–36 advantage in the Assembly.
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist and himself a former Democratic legislator, predicted the primaries will be a quiet, underwhelming affair after an April presidential primary that saw the highest turnout in more than 40 years.
Few people vote in primaries to begin with, and this August’s ballot features no statewide races, Lee said. That means likely only a party’s hard-core members will show up.
Louis Weisberg contributed to this report.