Senate supermajority at stake in special election to fill suburban Milwaukee seat

By: - April 3, 2023 6:00 am

Wisconsin State Capitol (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Apart from trying to maintain a conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court on April 4, Republicans are looking to reclaim a supermajority in the state Senate.

Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) is running against Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin, an environmental lawyer, for the 8th Senate District seat that represents the northern Milwaukee suburbs and parts of Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — or “WOW” — counties.

If Knodl wins, Republicans will hold a two-thirds majority in the Senate. The fall 2022 elections gave the party 22 seats in the 33-member body starting in January, until Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) retired in December. A supermajority would enable Republican senators to take certain actions, such as impeaching and removing “civil officers” without input from Democrats. Democrats are looking to prevent the supermajority by flipping the seat, which was held by Darling for 30 years.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu previously downplayed the implications of the Senate having unilateral removal powers. Such powers recently became a point of contention in the race, however, after Knodl said he would “certainly consider” launching impeachment efforts against liberal Supreme Court candidate Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protaciewitz.

Rep. Dan Knodl
Republican Rep. Dan Knodl (Legislature photo)

“Wisconsin Constitution Article 7 … to complete an impeachment it starts in the House in this case the Assembly with a simple majority so that would be the moving body initially to bring forward impeachment proceedings and the Senate would act as the trial court but needs a 2/3 majority to convict or to actually impeach, so this seat I would be that … 22nd Republican Senator to have the 2/3 majority so that is … authority that comes to us only with those numbers in place,” Knodl said in an interview with Wisconsin Right Now. 

Habush Sinykin criticized  Knodl’s comments in a tweet, saying “[Knodl] seems ready to use that power. I’ll work for the people of our district, not play political games.”

Democrats have invested heavily in the race with the aim of flipping the seat for the first time in three decades and preventing the Republican supermajority. 

More than $2 million has been spent over the course of the primary and general campaign with Habush Sinykin spending $1.03 million and Knodl spending just $323,538, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Money from outside groups has also funneled into the race with three groups spending $377,960 in support of Knodl and three other groups spending $124,521 in support of Habush Sinykin.  

Republican support in the WOW counties has softened in recent elections. Tim Michels, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost to Gov. Tony Evers in November, underperformed in some of these districts compared with former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Michels won Waukesha county with about 59.7% of the vote, a drop from 2018 when Walker won the district with 66.1% of the vote. In Ozaukee county, Walker won in 2018 with 62.6% of the vote, while Michels in November only gathered 55%.

Knodl said the outcome of the 2020 election, when Joe Biden won his Assembly district but he won reelection, is a good sign for him.

“I’m the only Assembly Republican that accomplished that out of the 61 of us that were there. Of the other 60 Republicans, Trump won their assembly districts so I have the appeal,” Knodl said in an interview before the February primary. “It’s establishing relationships with these people, representing them for 10 plus years, that they voted for a Democrat for president but yet they have confidence in me to be their state representative and also voted for me, so it’s that crossover appeal.” 

Habush Sinykin, who ran unopposed in the February primary, has also looked to position herself as a candidate who would be apt at coalition building in the Senate, saying that Knodl has had many years in office to make the changes that the state needs. She said she would provide a different voice to work towards progress.

Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin.  (Campaign Facebook photo)

“We’re not making progress in key areas. We are falling behind other states… with regard to health care, with regard to funding, with regard to economic opportunities, education and vocational opportunities,” Habush Sinykin said. “We read about it every day. People are speaking to it. They get the dysfunction. We need to make a difference, and I’ve spent my career building coalitions, and I want to do that so we can get out of the funk that our state has fallen into.”

Much of Habush Sinykin’s campaign, similar to the Supreme Court election, has focused on abortion and reproductive rights. The future of Wisconsin’s abortion law is up in the air since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which reinstated an 1849 abortion ban that doesn’t include exceptions for rape or incest. 

Habush Sinykin, who is a mother of four, supports increasing abortion access in Wisconsin, saying it’s important that women can make decisions regarding their own health care. 

“What I have long recognized is that protecting women’s reproductive choices and healthcare options is essential to having a healthy and independent life as a woman and as a person,” Habush Sinykin said. “This issue of protecting women’s reproductive access and options is far broader than what folks would singularly focus on, just the one aspect, which is abortion rights.” 

Habush Sinykin said abortion is an economic issue as the state could have trouble attracting medical professionals who don’t want to work under the state’s 1849 abortion ban. 

While Democrats are waiting to see how a case brought by Attorney General Josh Kaul progresses, Republican lawmakers including Knodl contend the issue is one that needs to be decided in the Legislature, not by the courts

Knodl is a co-author of a bill recently announced by Republicans that would update Wisconsin’s 1849 ban, adding rape and incest exceptions during the first trimester and clarifying the current “life of the mother” exception. The bill was immediately rejected by Gov. Tony Evers and Democrats, who announced their own bill that would repeal the ban, and by Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg). 

Knodl defended his position on abortion in a recent debate with Habush Sinykin. 

“We have to protect the life of the baby,” said Knodl. “Abortion, you won’t hear it called abortion much from the other side, but abortion is the termination of life, of a baby, and I am all for protecting that baby’s life, as well as the mother’s life.” 

Ads by the Habush Sinykin campaign have focused on Knodl’s views on abortion.

“Extreme politicians like Dan Knodl, who don’t know anything about medicine or anything about my patients, think they’re entitled to make women’s medical decisions,” said Kristin Lyerly, a Green Bay OB-GYN and abortion rights advocate in one TV spot. “…Knodl will give extremists total control of the state Senate and women’s rights in Wisconsin.” 

Knodl supported false claims that Trump won the 2020 election and signed a letter asking former Vice President Mike Pence to not certify Wisconsin’s 2020 election results.

Knodl, who has served in the state Assembly since 2008, won his party’s primary in February. He said he wants to continue on the work of Darling and that his years of experience puts him in the right position to do so. 

“We may not always agree on everything, but I’ve been willing to listen and hear out concerns and then act upon that and that goes with working together with Gov. Evers,” Knodl said during interview prior to the February primary. “That’s important to people, and I hear that all the time, you got to work together.”

Knodl pointed to Republican work during the budget process as an example, saying while they’re mostly crafted in the Legislature, Evers has to sign it. Republicans have thrown out the majority of Evers’ proposed budgets in the last two budget sessions and plan to do the same this year. They’ve instead opted to write their own version of the budget, which Evers has signed while making select vetoes.

Knodl, who has said he is “pragmatic” and “reasonable,” has said he is ready to work across the aisle to address issues, including on his main priorities, crime, education and taxes.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.

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