When faced with challenges, Wisconsin District Attorneys aren’t invincible

YOU VOTE 2020 Photo provided: © 2020 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

This story has been updated to include the contested district attorney election in Iron County. 

At the start of the 2020 election cycle, only six of Wisconsin’s 71 county district attorneys faced a contested reelection. After the votes had been counted, four held onto their seats. 

The results reflect previous research that shows district attorneys (DAs) rarely face contested re-elections, but when they do, challengers can win because the benefits of incumbency don’t help DAs as much as elected officials in other positions. 

A 2008 analysis of DA races nationwide found that prosecutors go unopposed 85% of the time, but when they are opposed, DAs win 69% of their reelection campaigns.

In elections held as Wisconsin and the country grapple with serious questions about the future of the criminal justice system, the state continued a trend that has appeared over the last two decades in which Wisconsin’s DAs rarely face challengers. 

In the last three cycles — DA terms in Wisconsin are on the same schedule as presidential elections — just one county has had a contested race each time, according to a 2018 analysis by The Appeal

Almost half, 33 of the counties in the state, haven’t had a DA race with more than one candidate since before 2008, while in that same time period, 29 counties have had just one contested election, the analysis found. 

Of the 33 counties that have been dominated by uncontested races for more than a decade, several — Dodge, Kenosha, Ozaukee, Rock, Washington and Waukesha counties — are in the more populated southeastern corner of the state. 

This year, Wisconsin’s seven contested DA elections were in Florence County, Iron County, Langlade County, Pierce County, Shawano and Menominee counties, St. Croix County and Waushara County. Shawano and Menominee counties share a DA and the St. Croix County race was for an open seat. 

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In Florence County, Republican incumbent Doug Drexler has held his position for 28 years. He defeated Republican challenger Gregory Seibold in the August primary election 654 to 442. 

In Langlade County, incumbent Elizabeth Gebert, a Republican, turned away independent challenger Alex Seifert in her first reelection campaign. Gebert won by a more than two-to-one margin, winning 6,911 votes to Seifert’s 3,680. 

Iron County started the election cycle without a contested DA race — the first time the county did not have two DA candidates in three cycles. But in July, a special prosecutor found incumbent DA Matthew Tingstad exhibited “incredibly poor judgment and short-sighted thinking” while falsifying information on a subpoena. Tingstad also faced accusations that he lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not Wisconsin. 

After the special investigation and the charges of being a Michigander, Doug Muskett launched a write-in campaign to get on the ballot. Muskett, also a UP lawyer (though he made a point of moving into Wisconsin), got enough write-in votes in the August primary to challenge Tingstad in November.

Tingstad successfully defended his seat, defeating Muskett 2,398 to 1,506.

The only other incumbent DA to win re-election in a contested race this year was Greg Parker in Shawano and Menominee counties. In his first contested election since 2008 — he won by one vote when he was elected in 2006 —Parker defeated independent challenger Aaron Damrau 12,739 votes to 10,322 votes.

The race between Parker and Damrau, a local defense attorney, had gotten incredibly heated. 

In August, a prosecutor in Parker’s office threatened Damrau with a felony bail jumping charge in a case involving a former client — a tactic used against political opponents in Shawano County in previous elections

Then in the days before the election, Damrau filed state and county ethics complaints against Parker for information he divulged about crime victims in a Facebook post.  

Two incumbent DAs lost this year. 

One, Laura Waite, is a Democrat in conservative Waushara County who was appointed to the position by Gov. Tony Evers in April to fill an open seat. 

As a Democrat in a county that ultimately went for President Donald Trump by 34 points, Waite was already facing an uphill battle to reelection. That battle became even more difficult after the news broke that Waite hadn’t shown up to work since June. 

First reported by Green Bay TV station WBAY, Waite left work on Friday, June 26 and never returned. Waite lost her race to Republican Matthew Leusink 3,954 to 9,188. 

The only incumbent DA who lost re-election in a race not marred by late-breaking scandal was Democrat Sean Froelich who lost in the August primary to fellow Democrat Halle Hatch 1,323 to 1,990. 

St. Croix County was the state’s only open DA seat after the previous prosecutor, Michael Nieskes, retired. Republican Karl Anderson won the August Republican primary against Amber Hahn 6,865 to 3,351. 

The next time Wisconsin voters will have a direct voice in the state’s criminal justice system is 2022 when all 72 county sheriffs are up for reelection.