The Wisconsin Capitol at night. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Wisconsin’s elections are underway with early in-person voting starting this week and Election Day on Nov. 8 less than two weeks away.
High-profile races — like the gubernatorial race between Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican businessman Tim Michels and the U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes — will likely be decided by slim margins. Down the ballot, however, Wisconsin’s legislative races could have an outsized impact on the purple state’s political future.
Republicans are closely eyeing the possibility of securing a supermajority in the state Assembly and Senate — an achievement that would allow them to overcome a governor’s vetoes. Democrats’ are trying to prevent this outcome, so if Evers is reelected, his power to veto legislation will remain intact.
During the last biennium, Evers vetoed a total of 126 bills passed by the Republican-led Legislature. The goal is so important that State Treasurer and former U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Godlewski converted her campaign into a PAC dedicated to protecting Evers’ veto power by electing Democratic women in key competitive races.
The path for Republicans securing this power is difficult, but possible. For a Senate supermajority, Republicans need to hold onto all of their seats and flip one district. In the Assembly, they need to keep their current seats and flip five more.
Here’s a rundown of twelve competitive legislative races that could determine the power of the dominant party in Wisconsin’s state Legislature.
The Competitive Assembly Districts
District 54: Lori Palmeri (D) v. Donnie Herman (R)
This district in the eastern part of the state — typically Democratic-leaning, but also home to Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, who is running for reelection against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes — was left open when former Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz announced in March that he wouldn’t seek reelection. Republicans are looking to capture this seat as part of their effort to achieve an Assembly supermajority.
Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri, the Democratic candidate, is running against Republican Donnie Herman, a local businessman.
Palmeri, a former council member, is in her second term as mayor and is relying on her previous governing experiences to make her case for succeeding Hintz. She is also supported by Godlewski’s PAC, focusing on protecting the veto power.
“I’ve developed a reputation for being responsive, reliable and results focused,” Palmeri said at an event for the PAC. “I’m really happy to be working with this group of folks to save the governor’s veto, and also to be working for what I call representing the voice of Oshkosh for the faces of Oshkosh.”
Palmeri said her priorities for office will include promoting fair wages and taxes, affordable housing, expanded health care access and strong schools.
Herman, on the other hand, is focusing on his lack of experience in politics, positioning himself as an outsider who will work to lower taxes for seniors, small businesses and families. It’s the tavern and auto shop owner’s second shot at this seat, having lost to Hintz in 2020.
“Career politicians have helped to cause many of these problems and have done little to solve them,” Herman said in a questionnaire with the Oshkosh Northwestern. “If elected, I will bring my real-world experience as a successful small business owner to Madison and will work to lower the tax burden for seniors, families and small business owners.”
District 73: Laura Gapske (D) v. Angie Sapik (R)
The race for this Superior seat is being heavily targeted by Republicans who hope to flip the seat as indicated by recent ads and fundraising in the race.
Republican Angie Sapik is running against Democrat Laura Gapske, a local school board member. The seat was left open by Democratic Rep. Nick Milroy, who narrowly won reelection in 2020 and decided not to run for reelection again.
Gapske’s pitch to voters is bipartisan. She said she’ll work to find creative, administrative solutions to support public education and address public safety issues such as addressing law enforcement recruitment shortfalls. She said her race is also important for maintaining checks and balances in the government by protecting the governor’s veto powers.
“Governments are about representing the voices of all people and we have people with different backgrounds and beliefs,” Gapske said in an interview. “We have an imbalance and what that’s created in our representation and legislation is a gridlock.”
Sapik’s campaign has emphasized minimizing government regulation in business and lowering taxes.
“Government overreach, particularly since the onslaught of COVID-19, has been unmatched in recent decades,” Sapik wrote in a Superior-Telegram questionnaire. “People should be able to go to work without worrying about vaccine requirements.”
Sapik’s campaign recently received a fundraising boost from political committees. Sapik’s pre-election campaign finance report showed she received $241,350 from committees, which included $197,078 from the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee. That’s a boost from the September report, which showed she’d raised about $25,000 for the campaign through Aug 31. Gapske’s pre-election report hasn’t been published yet.
The divisiveness that’s characterized much of the current election cycle nationally and regionally has appeared throughout the race.
Most recently, the Superior-Telegram reported on a website paid for by the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee claiming to showcase tweets from a now-deleted account allegedly owned by Sapik. Some of the tweets defend the Jan. 6 insurrection, the use of blackface, and the claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
District 84: LuAnn Bird (D) v. Bob Donovan (R)
Democrat LuAnn Bird, a former school board member and executive director of Wisconsin’s League of Women Voters, is running against Republican Bob Donovan, a former alderman and failed Milwaikee mayoral candidate, for this seat that represents the western Milwaukee suburbs.
The district was long represented by Republican Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, who resigned from the seat he first won in 2011, earlier this year. While the district typically leans Republican, recent redistricting pushed it further into the Milwaukee metro area, making the race more competitive. Democrats are hopeful they’ll flip it.
Donovan said in his campaign announcement that he plans to make an impact in the Assembly through “common-sense conservative” proposals with a focus on policies related to “law and order”, securing “parental rights and choice” in education and limiting abortion access.
Bird’s pitch, supported by the Women Save the Veto PAC, to voters is that she’ll bring civility back to politics. She wants to address issues like restoring women’s right to reproductive care and faith in the voting process.
“When I go to a door, I say, ‘We need civility, the system is broken, it’s divided and it’s ineffective. We’re not getting things done,” Bird said about campaigning at the Women Save the Veto event.
District 57: Lee Snodgrass (D) v. Andrew Fox (R)
This district, which represents Appleton and parts of Menasha, is one Democrats are trying to protect this November. Republican Andrew Fox is challenging state Rep. Lee Snodgrass for this seat that she won in 2020.
Snodgrass, who is receiving support from Godlewski’s PAC, is emphasizing the importance of maintaining her seat in the Fox Valley to protect the governor’s veto power. “I’ve been working hard making sure people understand the stakes of this election, but I’m also working hard making sure people understand what it’s like to have a responsive representative,” she said.
Fox, a warehouse forklift driver and gas station cashier, is positioning himself as a centrist outsider. In a Post-Crescent questionnaire, he said he supports school choice, reducing taxes and protecting gun rights.
“I will work to keep our taxes in check, cut bloated government bureaucracy and reckless spending and get people back into the workforce,” Fox wrote.
District 94: Steve Doyle (D) v. Ryan Huebsch (R)
Democratic Rep. Steve Doyle has represented this La Crosse-area district since he won a special election in 2011. He took over for the previous longtime representative Mike Huebsch, a Republican, who vacated the seat after former Gov. Scott Walker appointed him secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
Doyle is being challenged this year by Republican Ryan Huebsch, Mike Huebsch’s son and a former legislative aide to former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. The district is expected to be close, however Doyle is outraising and outspending Huebsch pretty significantly.
According to September campaign finance reports, Doyle has spent a total of $174,001 on his campaign this calendar year, while Huebsch has spent $24,237. For the most recent fundraising period, Huebsch raised $13,534, Doyle received $53,573.
District 74: John Adams (D) v. Chanz Green (R)
This northern seat was left open by Democratic Rep. Beth Meyers who is retiring — she’d been representing the area since 2015. Democratic candidate John Adams, a farmer and former Washburn town board member, is running against Chanz Green, a small business owner.
Adams says he’s running to protect democracy. Green says he hopes to preserve sportsmen’s rights, prioritize workforce development and bring money for infrastructure projects to northern Wisconsin.
Enbridge’s proposed Line 5 pipeline reroute could be an influential issue in this race. The 645-mile project, which carries light crude oil and liquid propane through the Superior area into Michigan, has been controversial as opponents point to the potential for a pipeline spill and the damage it could do to Lake Superior. Recently while in Superior, GOP gubernatorial nominee Tim Michels pledged his support for the project.
The Assembly candidates, in a recent debate on WPR’s Simply Superior, gave their thoughts on the issue.
“Do we trust Enbridge to keep Lake Superior clean?” Adams asked. He acknowledged that the issue is complicated, but pointed to previous handling of a spill on the Kalamazoo River to indicate that the answer is maybe not. He said there needs to be a “stiff” Draft Environmental Impact Statement looked at by the Department of Natural Resources to ensure the lake is protected.
Green said he “welcomes the project in the area” because of the economic impact and the jobs that it could provide. He also agreed that the company needs to be held to a high standard.
District 33: Don Vruwink (D) v. Scott Johnson (R)
Democrat Rep. Don Vruwink is running against GOP candidate Scott Johnson for this seat that covers portions of Jefferson and Rock counties. Redistricting drastically changed the southeast district, and Cody Horlacher, the current Republican representative, decided to resign to run for the Waukesha County Circuit Court.
Vruwink, a former public school teacher, currently represents the 43rd district, however, his hometown, Milton, was drawn into the 33rd district, explaining his reelection campaign in the new district.
Vruwink said in an interview that he’s staying away from negative campaigning to focus on introducing himself to the new voters — he estimated that 80% of the district is new to him — and listening to their concerns.
“I’ve tried to stay away from the political fights that go on in the Assembly,” Vruwink said. “To me, all politics are local. And I try to become involved in the communities of my district to find out what their needs are… I’ve helped to get road projects sped up. I’ve helped to get different agencies to look at the problems.”
Johnson, a farmer and consultant, is positioning himself as a moderate Republican, who may not always align himself with the party. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Assembly in 2014.
“I am a moderate, as I do not agree with some of my party’s views on issues that need to be addressed, so I will offer different solutions that will be more equitable and inclusive of all our citizens,” Johnson said in an interview with the Milton-Courier.
Despite the disadvantage of a new, mostly right-leaning district, there is a fundraising advantage for Vruwink. Johnson’s election committee didn’t report any activity until the end of August. His September campaign finance report showed he raised $2,851. Vruwink, in comparison, received $29,012 in contributions during the same period.
District 71: Katrina Shankland (D) v. Scott Soik (R)
The race for this seat representing Stevens Point in Central Wisconsin is a repeat from 2020. Retired Marine Scott Soik, the GOP candidate, is again challenging Rep. Katrina Shankland, who was first elected to the seat in 2012. Soik lost to Shankland last time 55% to 44%.
Soik, a Portage County board member and small business owner, supports policies that minimize taxes and state spending.
“There are numerous government policies that have made our post-COVID recovery worse and are contributing to the inflation that is hurting the finances of the hard working people of Portage County,” his campaign website reads.
Shankland, for her reelection bid, is emphasizing her prior experience in office, saying that she’s already accomplished a lot and will continue to build on her record.
Shankland managed to get bills passed in every single session, even though she has only served in the minority, she said at an event for the Women Save the Veto PAC that supports her. “How did I do that? My district wants me to get results. And I’m going to work non-stop for them every day and every night and people know that about me.”
District 64: Tip McGuire (D) v. Ed Hibsch (R)
Democratic Rep. Tip McGuire, who was elected during a 2019 special session and won reelection in 2020, is looking to hold onto this seat representing Kenosha and Racine. He’s running against Republican Ed Hibsch, who easily won the primary with 98% of the vote.
The race is another rematch as McGuire beat Hibsch 56% to 44% in 2020. However, Kenosha County has become increasingly right-leaning in recent years — former President Donald Trump won the county in 2016 and 2020 — meaning the seat is potentially vulnerable and Republicans hope to pick it up.
The Competitive Senate Races
District 19: Kristin Alfheim (D) v. Rachael Cabral-Guevara (R)
Democrats are hoping to flip this open Fox Valley Senate seat this November, though they have an uphill battle in this right-leaning district, where one of the candidates is a current Republican member of the Assembly. Republican Sen. Roger Roth, who has represented the district since 2014, announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, so he could run for the position of lieutenant governor
Democrat Kristin Alfheim, a member of the Appleton Common Council, is running against Republican Rep. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, who has represented Appleton since 2020.
Alfheim is another candidate receiving support from the Women Save the Veto PAC.
“[Republicans] have literally rewrote the rules in their benefit. Does that sound right to you?” Alfheim said at a PAC event. “It doesn’t feel right to me. That’s why I’m involved in this race. Because I believe in balance in government. I believe our democracy is built on challenging each other’s ideas, having differing opinions, working through that tension in order to move forward to accomplish something good.”
Cabral-Guevara, in a pre-primary questionnaire for the Post Crescent, said her experience in the Assembly gives her the knowledge she needs to achieve legislative wins. She said she wants to work to “ensure accessible, affordable health care for folks here in the Fox Valley and around the state” as well as “keep taxes low [and] our communities safe.”
District 25: Kelly Westlund (D) v. Romaine Quinn (R)
State Sen. Janet Bewley, the Senate minority leader, announced in February that she wouldn’t be seeking reelection for this northern Wisconsin seat that she’s held since 2015. Republicans are looking to flip the seat to secure a Senate supermajority.
Democrat Kelly Westlund, a small business owner and a former northwest regional representative for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, is running against Republican Romaine Quinn, a former member of the Assembly and former mayor of Rice Lake.
Westlund, another candidate with support from Godlewski’s PAC, has focused on the prospect of losing the governor’s veto power along with rural issues she says are increasingly urgent, and not sufficiently recognized in the Legislature.
“We have, you know, serious concerns about infrastructure that was built in the late 1800s, in some of our biggest cities, that still hasn’t had major investments since,” Westlund said. “I’m talking to a lot of voters about broadband access, about infrastructure investment about fully funded public schools, this stuff really matters in rural communities.”
Quinn said he would like to see the $4.3 billion budget surplus used to cut taxes. He also told the Baron News-Shield that he supports the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline because he thinks it could bring a stable supply of energy to the state.
“Wisconsin alone can’t stop runaway inflation,” Quinn said to the Barron News Shield. “But one thing we can do is use a historically-large surplus, and put money back in people’s pockets.”
District 31: Jeff Smith (D) v. Dave Estenson (R)
Democratic incumbent Jeff Smith faces a challenge in this western, rural Wisconsin district from Republican candidate Dave Estenson.
Smith, the owner of a window cleaning business, won this Republican-leaning district in 2018. He previously served in the state Assembly from 2007 to 2011, after unseating a Republican incumbent. Smith — known for his habit of stopping to talk with his constituents on the side of the road — is prioritizing issues important to rural Wisconsin like securing broadband access and protecting water quality.
Estenson, a Whitehall school board member, small business owner and a former police officer, has built his campaign on supporting law enforcement and lowering taxes and business regulations.
The Republican candidate has faced some controversy during the campaign including reports that the Wisconsin Department of Justice investigated Estenson for misconduct while he was an officer. The allegations included having sexual relations while on duty and later threatening the woman involved. He denied the allegations in 2007 and was never charged.
Correction: The final paragraph on the District 74 race was updated to correctly attribute the comments to candidate Chanz Green
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