Wisconsin’s least competitive legislative races happening Tuesday
Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) is one of several state representatives running for reelection unopposed. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
A handful of Wisconsin’s legislative races are expected to be competitive and play a decisive role in whether Republicans win supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly. The remaining races are mostly noncompetitive with candidates facing weak opposition or none at all.
While election seasons typically include less competitive races, recent redistricting has played a role in minimizing the number of competitive districts by drawing gerrymandered districts to lean heavily Republican or Democratic.
Wisconsin’s maps for this election cycle were drawn by Republican state legislators, who created some of the most partisan gerrymandered districts nationwide. The gerrymandered maps give Republicans a huge advantage by packing Democratic voters into the fewest number of districts possible, while simultaneously creating more districts with a Republican lean.
The lack of competition between parties in many of these districts pushes legislators to the political extremes. With general election opponents lacking strength, the impactful decisions about the seat are often made during primaries where candidates vie against members of the same party to appeal to the base.
Of Wisconsin’s 116 legislative races, four feature newcomer candidates running unopposed: two will place Democratic Socialists in the Assembly, while the other two will elect Republicans, one of whom is endorsed by the state’s top election deniers. There are also at least 20 races that feature a current representative without a challenger.
Republican Assembly newcomers without opposition
The same day that longtime Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) announced he wouldn’t seek reelection for the State Assembly, Republican Dave Maxey announced his candidacy to replace him. No other candidates announced after him.
Maxey, a New Berlin alderman and former school board president, is now likely to win the race to represent Assembly District 15, which includes eastern parts of Waukesha County, without facing any opposition in the primary or general election.
Terry Dittrich, chairman of the Waukesha County Republican Party, said Maxey likely saw the vacancy as an opportunity to move up the political rank.
“[Maxey’s] got name recognition from the local elections that he won, and we push that very hard,” Dittrich said, “But as far as what he might have done on the council or whatever, I actually don’t know if there was anything specific that he did that kind of catapulted him into this.”
Maxey served on the New Berlin School Board for nine years with stints as vice president and president. Maxey was then elected to the New Berlin Common Council in 2017. Dittrich said Maxey was also part of WisRed, a local initiative aimed at electing Republicans to local offices.
Dittrich said name recognition and his quick announcement are probably part of the reason why Republicans in the district got behind his candidacy without much commotion.
“There in New Berlin — which is very conservative — they probably talked amongst themselves and said, ‘Well, we don’t want any big contested primary here. Dave looks like the guy.’ He got out in front early, and so nobody else jumped in,” said Dittrich.
Recent redistricting changed many of Wisconsin’s legislative districts this year. Assembly District 15 became a combination of Sanfelippo’s District 15 and parts of District 84 represented by Rep. Mike Kuglitsch (R-New Berlin), who also opted not to run for reelection this cycle.
While the boundaries changed, Dittrich said the district remained just as, if not more, conservative, which he said likely discouraged any Democratic opponents from cropping up.
“It sounds to me like the Democrats decided not to play in that race because they were gonna get defeated,” Dittrich said.
With quick Republican consolidation behind Maxey and lack of a Democratic challenger, Maxey’s public campaigning — including details about why he decided to run for office and his plans for office — has been sparse.
Maxey briefly describes his stances on three issues on his campaign website: he’s for keeping taxes low, against abortion and for providing parents with funding options and information about their children’s education. He also wrote, “I am running for State Assembly because I want to bring family values and the knowledge skills I have learned in business and through a life of serving the community to Madison.”
Dittrich said he hasn’t spoken much with Maxey, but it makes sense for a candidate running without an opponent to not express more than such standard positions.
While Maxey doesn’t describe any specific policy plans or agenda he will pursue once he enters office, Dittrich said he imagines that Maxey will likely follow the path of his predecessors and look to Assembly leadership for direction.
“As far as policy initiatives and things, [that] will be dictated a bit more when the actual caucus meets in January, and they assign the committee assignments to people, like [Maxey], if he wins.” Dittrich said. “I mean, that’s going to move him in the direction of what the speaker and the Assembly policymakers want him to focus on.”
Maxey did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Assembly District 59, which includes parts of Sheboygan, Calumet, Fond du Lac and Washington counties, is the other open seat where a Republican newcomer is running unopposed. This seat is currently represented by Republican Rep. Timothy Ramthun.
Ramthun, who is known for his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, left the seat open after launching his unsuccessful campaign for governor.
Calumet County Republican Party chairman Ty Bodden is the sole candidate running for the seat. Bodden previously ran for the seat in 2018, but lost to Ramthun.
With an endorsement from the election denier incumbent, Bodden won the Republican primary in a landslide, and he is almost certain to win on Tuesday with no Democratic opponent in this red-leaning district.
Bodden has also boasted an endorsement from Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R – Menomonee Falls), who pushed to recall Wisconsin’s 2020 electoral votes alongside Ramthun.
Bodden’s top priorities include funding and supporting law enforcement, working to “secure our elections, eliminate any chance of election fraud and restore trust in our election process,” protecting the Second Amendment, eliminating Wisconsin’s income tax and expanding school choice.
Bodden, a former employee of the Department of Corrections, has spent the general election season actively campaigning as shown by his Facebook page, where he often posts about campaigning, visiting local businesses and recently announced an endorsement from Republican U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman.
“Even though I do not have an opponent for the upcoming election on Nov. 8, I am still on the ballot and would love your support,” Bodden wrote in a recent editorial.
The return of Democratic Socialists to the Assembly
The next legislative session will likely mark the return of socialist representatives to the Wisconsin Assembly for the first time in over 30 years. Ryan Clancy, a Milwaukee County supervisor and former public school teacher, and Darrin Madison Jr., a local activist, are running unopposed for two Assembly seats in the Milwaukee metro area.
Clancy, similar to Republican Dave Maxey, will be elected to the Assembly without facing any opposition as he faced no primary challenger. He said he was approached about running for the seat by Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, who served the district for seven years before deciding to run for the Milwaukee Common Council this year.
“[Brostoff] described all the frustrations with being in the minority,” Clancy said. “It’s really difficult to get things done. It’s personally and professionally taxing, and I told him, ‘That sounds horrible’.”
Clancy, with the encouragement of family and friends, said he decided to run despite the potential difficulties because he thinks a lot can be done with the office.
He said that he hopes to help pass legislation that ensures safe access to abortion and legalizes marijuana, but knows that may not be possible in a Republican-led Legislature.
“I know that it is extremely unlikely that the Republicans will let any of those things happen,” Clancy said. “So what I’m very much looking forward to doing is equally important, but less apparently partisan policy changes.”
Clancy helped pass a “right to counsel” policy in Milwaukee County, which provides eligible residents access to free legal representation in eviction cases. He said this is an example of a type of policy that could garner bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Madison, who won the Democratic primary against Glendale mayor Bryan Kennedy, said socialists’ return to the Assembly is significant as a means of lifting up the working class and building strategy that brings together unions behind policy goals. He also said the elections are a sign that American politics could open up.
“It [helps] folks to see that we can move beyond the boundaries of partisan politics,” Madison said. “There’s a pathway for folks — who want to run as an independent, who want to run under any other political ideology — to be able to win seats and to win their seat at the table.”
Madison said he hopes to address youth incarceration and sustainability issues in office.
Acknowledging the challenges of working in the minority, Madison said he will focus on establishing relationships with the municipal government to find administrative pathways for making a difference in addition to his legislative focus.
Clancy said he is also excited that there will be two Democratic Socialists in the legislature because it will be easier to affect the conversation that way.
“I know that Darren and I can get a whole lot more done together,” Clancy said. “Some of it may be legislation and I hope that it is. A lot of it will be talking about the root causes of a lot of the harm to folks across the state, and that’s capitalism, there’s often net harm.”
Legislative incumbents without any challengers
The majority of candidates running unopposed are current officeholders. There are at least 16 Assembly representatives and four state senators running uncontested Tuesday.
Nine of the Assembly representatives are Republicans, while seven are Democrats. The state senators — Senate President Chris Kapenga, Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, John Jaggler and Van Wanggaard — are all Republicans.
Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison), who represents Assembly District 76, is one candidate running for reelection unopposed. Her focus this cycle has been on elevating and supporting Democratic candidates in other races.
“Running as oftentimes what can be seen as a sacrificial lamb in areas that are severely gerrymandered takes a lot of emotional labor and a lot of sacrifice and a lot of time. It’s very unforgiving, relentless work,” Hong said. “So ensuring that our state legislative candidates who are working to turn out voters in the midterms feel seen and appreciated has been vital to our work.”
Hong, who has spent time door-knocking, fundraising and attending other community events, said her role as a small business owner and Wisconsin’s first Asian American legislator is also impactful when it comes to encouraging people from various communities to vote.
Democrats like Hong are fighting against Republicans’ supermajority goal, which would give the majority the power to override the governor’s vetoes. Republicans need to flip one seat in the Senate and five seats in the Assembly to make this happen.
“We have people in power who are not working for the majority of Wisconsinites and so what that forces us to do is really shift towards clear messaging on what the reality of the state Legislature is,” Hong said. “Why the governor’s veto is so important is because Republicans insist on passing incredibly harmful legislation.”
Other uncontested Assembly incumbents include: Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Samba Baldeh (D-Madison), Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison), Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), Rep. Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc), Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc), Rep. Mark Born (R- eaver Dam), Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake), Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), Rep. Dave Armstrong (R-Rice Lake), Rep. John Spiros (R-Marshfield), Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha).
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