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Dan Kapanke wants back in. Jennifer Shilling wants to hold on to what she’s got.
Voters will decide between the two La Crosse natives in an Election Day rematch for a state Senate seat representing far western Wisconsin that could illustrate whether the political rift Gov. Scott Walker’s public union restrictions caused has narrowed over the last five years.
Shilling, a Democrat, took the seat from Kapanke, a Republican, during the bitter 2011 recalls spurred by liberal anger over the union restrictions, which stripped public unions of nearly all their collective bargaining rights. Kapanke’s vote helped move the restrictions through the Senate and ultimately cost him his job in Madison. Five-plus years removed from the emotional crucible of the union fight, Kapanke wants to reclaim what was his.
“(The state is) better than we were and we certainly haven’t suffered,” Kapanke said. “It was a difficult vote, no question about it. (But) I’m convinced it was the right thing to do.”
Shilling said Kapanke is looking for redemption after losing a congressional bid in 2010 and the recall election.
“I think the voters have spoken pretty clearly,” she said. “They aren’t interested in going back to elect somebody who has been a rubber stamp for Gov. Walker.”
Republicans will go into Election Day with a 17-14 majority in the Senate. Five Republican and three Democratic seats, including Shilling’s, are up for grabs. Democrats need to win six of those eight races to gain control, a tough task that would be even more difficult if Shilling loses. Democrats would lose one of their brightest stars, leaving them rudderless in the Senate.
“It’s a classic (rematch),” University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political scientist Joe Heim said. “I see (the match-up) as the marquee race around here. It’s so unique.”
Kapanke, a lifelong baseball fan, owns the La Crosse Loggers, a collegiate summer league team. He was first elected to the state Senate in 2005, won re-election in 2008 and ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Ron Kind in 2010.
Democrats alleged that year that he used money from the Loggers’ charitable arm to pay off his personal debts. Kapanke said it was an innocent mistake and that he paid the money back. In 2009, he acknowledged that his office mishandled an open records request from the Democratic Party and voluntarily paid the party’s legal fees and a $100 fine.
Kapanke has remained highly visible since he left the Senate, literally selling peanuts in the stands at Logger games and hobnobbing with fans. The latest campaign finance reports show only a modest fundraising gap between him and Shilling: Kapanke raised nearly $124,000 during the first half of the year, compared with Shilling’s $136,000.
But Shilling looks far more formidable than she was in 2011.
She has served on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee and became Senate minority leader last year. She has stayed scandal-free and has built up such a reputation among Democratic circles that she’s been mentioned as a possible 2018 gubernatorial candidate.
The demographics are in her favor, too. Their district, which includes La Crosse and portions of Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties, leans Democratic; Monroe County was the only one of the four that went for Walker in the 2014 governor’s race.
Kapanke said he wants to focus on transportation issues if he regains his Senate spot. Legislators have been grappling with how to fund roadwork with flat gas tax revenues; Walker has refused to raise the tax or vehicle registration fees, proposing instead to rely on borrowing and delaying major projects. Assembly Republicans have balked at the governor’s plan, calling it a short-term solution.
Kapanke said Walker’s plan is a good step since it shifts more money to local governments for their road projects and prioritizes maintenance but he’s open to any ideas.
He acknowledged that some voters may have trouble getting past his support for Walker’s union restrictions, but he thinks the vote put the state on a better path. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he believes the political atmosphere isn’t as toxic in the La Crosse area as five years ago.
“Dan Kapanke loves to talk to people,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s having the time of his life, he told me, just meeting with people.”
Shilling also said her top issue is finding transportation funding. She said the answer will come from a mix of ideas, although she opposes toll roads because they would hurt her district along the Minnesota border and it would take years for meaningful revenue to materialize.
She contends that the state is worse off than five years ago, saying roads are deteriorating, the state faces an impending teacher shortage and wages are stagnant.
“There’s still a lot of economic angst in Wisconsin,” she said. “People have a long memory of my opponent.”