By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The Democrats’ honeymoon with the state Senate majority could be nearing its end.
Sixteen of the state’s 33 Senate seats are on the ballot in November, but only a handful — at most — are up for grabs. The bad news for Democrats is they hold all of those seats.
The stakes couldn’t be higher.
“If the Republicans gain control of the Senate again, then the governor (Scott Walker) will have more or less a free hand until he faces re-election,” said James Simmons, political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
All 99 seats in the Republican-controlled state Assembly are on the ballot, but the Democrats might have a better chance of stopping legislation from Illinois hotel rooms than flipping the 10 seats needed to turn the lower chamber blue.
Walker will submit his 2013-2014 biennial budget for approval to the Joint Committee on Finance, which is led by the majority Senate party, before it goes to the assembly and Senate floors for a vote.
All bills relating to spending or taxing must move through the all-powerful committee.
Republicans want to move on a mining bill which they need a two-seat majority to pass. Last session, state Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, cast the lone Republican vote against a mining bill, which originated and passed in the Assembly. Gogebic Taconite LLC planned a $1.2 billion project, which would have created thousands of jobs, to develop an iron-ore mine in the Northwoods. But the company’s call for legislative reform was turned back by Democrats and Schultz, who criticized the bill for giving away too much in environmental protection and the regulatory process.
There have also been grumblings about income tax reform, more education reform and jobs training programs. Some Democrats have mentioned venture capital as part of their legislative agenda.
“I feel we’re in a very good position to win at least two (Senate) seats,” said Dan Romportl, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate. On its contested list, CERS has the 30th Senate District, covering the Green Bay area, which Democrat Dave Hansen has represented as senator since 2000.
“We have a good candidate in John Macco, who’s well known in the area and is very involved in his community,” Romportl said. “We’ve never had the chance to actually put Hansen’s record out there for voters to see if they want to re-elect him.”
That record includes then-assistant Senate Majority leader Hansen’s role in crafting the 2009 budget, which increased spending by 6.2 percent. At the time, the state faced a $6.6 billion shortfall. Hanson fled the state with 13 other Democratic senators in 2011 to stall a vote on the controversial Act 10, the Walker-led bill that changed the terms of public employee collective bargaining.
Hansen did not return requests for comment, but former Brown County Democratic Chairman Tom Sieber said Hansen is well liked in the region.
“I think redistricting will make it more difficult,” he said of the Republican-led changes to Wisconsin’s district maps. “Having a credible opponent is going to make it more competitive, but I think Dave is going to end up with the win. He’s well known and well respected for the hard work he’s done for the district.”
Macco is from the area and created Macco Financial Group, a company he runs with his son. As of July 30, he raised nearly $42,000 compared to Hansen’s $35,589. Hansen, though, has more than $140,000 in campaign cash.
Romportl said the shift in district maps created a perpetual toss-up for the seat, much like pre-redistricted Racine County, which has flipped between Republican and Democrat seemingly every election cycle —including Democrat’s John Lehman’s Senate majority-clinching June recall victory over Republican Van Wanggaard, who had defeated Lehman in 2010.
“It’s most definitely in play,” Simmons said of the 30th Senate District seat, noting independent ad buys have gone up in the area, a sign of a competitive race. “If you look at the assembly districts that make up the 30th — the 88th, 89th, 90th — they are all Republicans.”
In 2008, Hansen defeated his challenger by nearly a 2-1 margin. But Simmons said President Barack Obama’s performance created down-ticket momentum for all Democrats, and Hansen’s opponent wasn’t a strong candidate. Walker carried the area in 2010 and 2012.
Still, Romportl conceded a Republican victory in the 30th would be considered an upset. The safer bets are to be found in the 12th Senate District — a seat vacated by retiring state Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, and the 18th District, where state Sen. Jessica King, D-Oshkosh, faces new district lines and an experienced opponent.
King, who defeated Randy Hopper by 2 percentage points in the 2011 summer recall, is the first Democrat to represent the 18th Senate District since Marley Garfield Kelly, a linotype operator, in 1935.
The political scientist said incumbents are most vulnerable when running for their second term, and a strong showing by Obama might be the difference between King retaining or dropping her seat.
After raising $227,708 in 2011, King was outraised by her opponent, Rick Gudex, Fond du Lac City Council president, $53,389 to $70,576 as of July 30. King, however, had $81,137 on hand to Gudex’s $59,851.
King did not return requests for comment.
Gudex fashions himself as a labor-friendly Republican and a consensus builder, due to his manufacturing days in a union shop and experience in labor relations as mayor of Mayville and his work as council president.
In the other race, Democrats may have conceded the 12th District to state Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, at least judging by campaign finance reports. After losing narrowly to Holperin for Senate in 2008, Tiffany won a state assembly seat in 2010. He leads his opponent, Susan Sommer, in fundraising this year $90,980 to $4,540. Tiffany also has more than $100,000 on hand.
The State Senate Democratic Committee did not return requests for comment.
“You can never tell. There will always be some surprises in an election year, especially when you’ve got a presidential campaign going on,” Simmons said. “If the election proves to be a draw and Democrats retain control of the state Senate, you’re going to have gridlock.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org.