Every even-numbered year all 99 Wisconsin Assembly seats are up for grabs.
In reality there are only a few truly competitive races, because the body is gerrymandered into what observers on both sides have labeled a permanent majority for Republicans.
In the last session the Assembly had 63 Republicans to 36 Democrats, despite Democrats getting 53% of the overall Assembly votes.
Here’s what adds interest to these races. First, Republicans are eyeing the pick-up of three seats to form a super-majority that could override the veto of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Democrats have united under a campaign banner of “Save the Veto” to protect the power of the governor who beat Scott Walker in 2019.
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos hedged his bets — and even his messaging — on the topic of his party getting to that two-thirds veto-proof majority, which is of particular interest because the maps of districts for the next decade will be drawn after this election. But he was careful not to make promises.
Asked about his chances by WisPolitics virtual forum host Jeff Mayers, Vos gave the Republicans a one-in-three chance of reaching the veto override threshold: “I don’t think it’s likely only because of the environment we are in. Democrats have been trying to buy this election.” He went on to rail against Democrats also getting “dark” untraceable money this year and a major contribution from the governor of Illinois.
But he also stated on the veto, “I think the Legislature will come back with a good, strong majority for sure, and I think we have a decent shot.”
Vos is walking the tightrope leaders of both parties always walk. Say things are too good, and donors feel their money isn’t needed. Say things are hopeless, and donors feel their money would be wasted.
Assembly Democratic leader Gordon Hintz also hedged his bets. “In terms of the electoral cycle, we think it’s one of opportunity” for Democrats, he said. But he also pointed to the partisan maps that leave only a small handful of competitive districts .
“In 2010, one of the worst years for Democrats in state history, under the last round of maps, we won 39 seats,” Hintz said. “And in 2018, one of the best years in Democratic history, we won 36 seats, which shows you the impact of redistricting.”
Donald Trump for state Assembly
Hintz agreed with Vos that the veto issue is drawing interest, but also emphasized that the prospect of getting rid of the president is firing up Democrats.
“The enthusiasm that we see — it’s not just at the national level to get rid of Donald Trump — but the opportunity we see [is] to protect the governor’s veto and to make some headway heading into redistricting.”
Describing the current political climate, Hintz said “The reality is the president has made such a mess of this. There’s a lack of understanding, a lack of science-based [evidence], a lack of public health support from Republicans all the way down.”
Vos cited exhaustion with politics as a point of unity. “There isn’t a lot that Republicans and Democrats really agree on. [One thing they do] is that you don’t need politics 24/7 and we especially don’t need people who spend all their time denigrating the other side.” (Hintz passed on the opportunity to bring up the president’s style of denigrating his opponents with name calling.)
Then Vos turned to what he labeled Republican success in crafting budgets that have left Wisconsin in better fiscal shape than other states. (He classifies the current budget, signed by Evers, as a Republican document, because it began in the Legislature after he and his Republican colleagues rejected Evers’ budget.)
Vos also painted a rosy picture of the state’s economy opening up after the Supreme Court killed Evers’ Safer-at-Home order.
“We are focusing on our economy now gradually opening thanks to Republicans,” said Vos. “I think if it were up to the Democrats, we’d look an awful lot like Dane County where most businesses are not allowed to operate in a way that can help them be profitable.”
Hintz said the “big three” issues are still healthcare, education and the economy — and in all three cases this cycle they are seen through the lens of how the public perceives the pandemic.
“Are we going to make balanced decisions with the input of public health experts and with science, or are we going to do things like the president has done with incoherent calling things a hoax, telling people they can go out and about because it’s just like the flu? Or are we going to lead? Parents are worried about the safety of their kids. … And in healthcare we have to make sure that people have access to it. The big three priorities haven’t changed with the public, but there are stark differences on what needs to be done because of the coronavirus.”
“There’s no filter between legislative races and presidential — everything is nationalized,” said Mayers. Later he added, “Hanging over everything is the pandemic.”
That’s another thing Vos and Hintz agreed on: while huge shifts are not likely, 2020 is a year so bizarre and unpredictable that anything can happen.
While Vos supports Trump and touts him as a strong leader, he said state Republicans have their own “positive” brand, something he’s worked hard to build up — as the national ticket plays differently for candidates in each area. He said Republicans are focused on two issues — the economy and healthcare — and said in both arenas Wisconsin does well, although he added, you might not know it “because the mainstream media is so in the tank for Democrats.”
Vos also says national politics is a double-edged sword.
“If you’re in an urban area and you’re a Democrat, you probably want [the race] to be nationalized. If you’re a Republican and you’re in a rural area, you probably want it to be nationalized. In some of the seats that are a division of both, I think there are some challenges for each side. In rural areas Democrats have a hard time standing next to Joe Biden, in some of our suburban seats, people have a more difficult time standing next to Donald Trump. And that’s just the challenge that we have.”
Hintz said Democrats are attracting voters that see their candidates at all levels looking out for people’s health and best interests. He says early attack ads against Democrats have not touched on COVID.
“It’s the tired laundry list of socialism, taxes, dog whistles, things that I don’t think are really pertinent,” Hintz said. “It’s more of a distraction. It’s doubling down on Donald Trump’s brand, which is something different than we heard, at least during the 2016 presidential primary. …It’s not just a Donald Trump problem, it is a Republican Party problem, on all the way down” the ticket.
Where’s the competition?
As WisPolitics’ president Mayers asked them to dissect the issues and the races where each saw opportunities for offense and the need for defense, the talk circled back to two things: COVID-19 and Donald Trump. It’s especially true this year where there are no statewide constitutional offices and no U.S. Senate seat on the ballot, a situation which occurs just once every 12 years.
The tightest competition in Wisconsin comes down to the suburbs, say both Hintz and Vos.
The speaker touts his numbers: “We have the most Republicans running, 92 Republicans running, only 82 Democrats. First time since 1986. I think that’s part of the enthusiasm folks have about serving in a Legislature that really gets things done.”
Vos concedes that some suburban seats are “more in jeopardy than they have been in the past,” citing Reps. Jim Ott (R-Mequon), Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) and Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield).
He picks Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) as the top target for the GOP to knock off, but also touts candidates running against incumbents Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield) and Nick Milroy (D-South Range).
“I am really confident we are going to come back, definitely with over 60 seats,” Vos said. “There are excellent pick-up opportunities. I think we have a real chance to retain our incumbents and do so in a way that allows us to expand our majority.”
Hintz agreed with Mayers that only a fraction of the 99 seats are competitive. “That’s intentional,” he said, noting it’s the last cycle under the maps that have been called the most partisan in the nation. He listed the same three (Ott, Hutton and Knodl) Vos did as most likely Republican incumbents to lose, adding that in the open Rice Lake seat, GOP candidate David Armstrong tweeted a video featuring Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Vos countered that the tweet was from 2015 and Armstrong admitted his mistake.
While racial divides and the Black Lives Matter movement did not feature prominently in the discussion, they did come up. Vos went after Hintz for two Milwaukee Democrats — David Bowen and Jonathan Brostoff — who he said want to “defund the police.”
“Why don’t you right here, right now say that those members are wrong, and that we should not spend less on police than we do today?” Vos challenged. He asserted Hintz could not say those words because his base would never let him.
Hintz, who has received accolades from law enforcement, stated he did not want to defund the police, but layered complexities around the issue. He called for a “more productive” discussion about “protecting everybody’s public safety and giving them the resource priorities to be able to effectively do their job.”
Hintz also threw a jab at Republicans for refusing to hold a session to even discuss racial disparities and police reform.
“It’s an understandable position to support the men and women that work in law enforcement,” he said, “and still want to hold them to high standards of accountability and make sure that the training and practices and tactics involved treat people fairly.”
One final point where Hintz and Vos concur: It’s going to be one heck of an election.
It will be safe, as it was in April, said Vos. “We’re going to have record turnout. I know both sides are very motivated to turn their voters out. And that’s a good thing for our democracy.”
Hintz believes the pandemic and all of the chaos surrounding mail-in ballots and election safety and security won’t stop people from voting.
“No matter what gets in the way, I’ve never seen a determination like this to make the changes necessary. And as dysfunctional as it can be, we still have a democracy and that’s how we make the change.”