During the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican majority carefully crafted a map of political districts that guaranteed them the majority in the state Assembly and Senate, as well as in the state’s congressional representation, until 2022.
A challenge to the hyper-partisan, gerrymandered map is winding its way through the courts. Meanwhile, Republican candidates continue to dominate the Assembly, even when, as in the last election, Democrats receive far more Assembly votes on the whole.
Gov. Scott Walker frequently claims he’s a conservative Republican who’s able to draw support in a purple state, but in reality the state is very blue in presidential-election years and very red in midterm election years. Since 2016 is a presidential year, Democrats have the best prospects they can possibly get at picking up seats in the Senate.
The GOP is trying hard to prevent traditionally Democratic constituencies, including blacks, Latinos, the poor and college students, from voting. They’ve created a voter ID law and closed down or reduced hours at DMV sites that can issue those IDs — particularly sites in poor and minority areas. Republicans hope to toss out the ballot of every voter who’s moved since registering, which poor people do more often than middle-class and wealthy people.
But despite all of the undemocratic measures, some Democrats believe their party might pick up the state Senate. Republicans hold a narrower majority there — 19 to 14 — than in the Assembly, because Senate districts are larger, making them harder to manipulate for partisan purposes. Democrats need to pick up three seats in the Senate.
With Democrats holding the presidential advantage in Wisconsin and with the popular former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold near the top of the ticket in a rematch with the unpopular incumbent Ron Johnson, there might be Democratic momentum in the state. Figure in Walker’s low approval rating and the field appears even more open to change, especially if the Democratic presidential candidate wears long coattails.
According to expert political observers, at least three seats currently held by Republicans are in play.
Tom Tiffany, R-12, is especially vulnerable. Tiffany has offended many Wisconsinites since he took office. He was behind efforts to cut scientific positions from the Department of Natural Resources and transform the DNR into a rubber stamp agency for polluters who donate to the Republican Party. He helped lead the effort to change mining regulations so that an out-of-state company could build an open-pit iron mine — a project that was later dropped by the mining company itself because it was too environmentally risky.
Tiffany pushed to make old-growth forests in the state available for logging and he helped to take away the powers of counties to pass tougher zoning standards along their shorelines.
The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters put Tiffany on its “dishonor role,” a position that he called “a badge of honor.” But it’s a badge that’s made him a top target of the state’s well-organized environmental community.
Still, the biggest albatross around Tiffany’s neck is that, as a key member of the Joint Finance Committee, he ignored warnings of growing problems with understaffing and safety issues at the Lincoln Hills School in Wausau, a prison for young male offenders. Because he helped slash 100 positions and $145 million from the Department of Corrections budget, he’s being held responsible for physical abuse at the facility.
The state Department of Justice is investigating the situation, and the issue is not likely to go away soon.
In 2016, Tiffany will face Democrat Dave Polashek, who recently retired as superintendent of the Oconto Falls School District.
Senate District 18 has no incumbent, which makes it ripe for picking. Retiring Republican Sen. Rick Gudex of Fond du Lac won the seat from Jessica King in 2012 by 590 votes, despite outspending her six to one, according to Wisconsin Democratic Party executive director Kory Kozloski.
Gudex is retiring because he knew he faced a tough re-election battle against popular Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, a Democrat. Harris has decreased the county’s debt and built its reserves while increasing public investment in infrastructure, including improvements to roads, a nursing home and UW-Fox Valley. The personable Harris also is a strong campaigner.
But that’s not the only reason Gudex bailed. As a board member of the failed and corrupt Wisconsin Economic Development Council, his name was rightly dragged through the mud during its endless scandals and he was heavily criticized from both sides of the aisle for resisting calls for an investigation. He was personally associated with some of WEDC’s more controversial loans, which critics denounced as cronyism rather than investment in job growth. Sixty percent of all loans made by WEDC went to Scott Walker campaign donors.
Harris will face Fond du Lac GOP chair Dan Feyen. The district is historically a tossup. In 2008, Republican Randy Hopper won by a 168-vote margin. In the 2011 recall, King upset him with 1,250 votes.
Democrats also hope to unseat Sheila Harsdorf in District 10 and Rob Cowles in District 2, both of whom easily survived recall races in 2011. Republican Luther Olsen in District 14 also survived a 2011 recall, but by a margin of just 52–48. His is one of the races in which strong turnout and presidential coattails could make a difference.