Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Five Things to Watch For in 2016

Will Rebecca Bradley win? Can Democrats re-take the senate? Will Walker get a different job?

By - Jan 4th, 2016 10:16 am
Rebecca Bradley

Rebecca Bradley

Prediction: Wisconsin politics in 2016 will continue to be fascinating. Here are five key things to watch for:

1. What’s next, Republicans?

Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators have made more than 25 controversial changes over the last five years, so the big question is: What’s your next act?

Even if Walker proposes another dramatic change in his State of the State message this month, Republican legislators are under no obligation to approve it, especially if tax collections continue to run at or below the 4 percent increase predicted by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Republican legislative leaders could pass only one Assembly-approved change – rewriting civil service laws to make it easier to hire and fire – and go home for the year by March 1 and work on reelection campaigns. Or they could get bogged down in debates over changing forestry-protection laws and the push by developers to rewrite wetlands rules.

Wisconsin’s April vote.

This year, our April presidential primary could actually mean something, if there are still four or five viable Republican presidential candidates standing by then. Wisconsin Republicans, and any mischief-making Democrats who opt to participate in the GOP primary, could actually be part of the “sifting and winnowing” process of helping pick the Republican presidential nominee. Democrats may stay home to vote in the Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders brawl, however.

The April vote will also signal whether opponents of Republicans can mount a serious challenge to Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley, a Walker appointee who is being helped by the state Republican Party. If Bradley loses, or even if it’s close, Democrats could get some badly needed momentum for the November election.

Forget that the April Supreme Court election is – officially – for a non-partisan office. Bradley is the choice of Republicans and one of her opponents, Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, who lost in 2011 after a statewide recount to Walker ally Justice David Prosser, is the choice of establishment Democrats.

3. Democratic turnout in the November election.

Vote-total numbers for the past 12 years reveal a startling statistic:  Wisconsin Democrats turn out up to 20 percent more votes statewide in presidential election years than in off-years, when we elect governors. That’s why Wisconsin has not voted for a Republican for President since 1984 but Republicans have won all but two elections for governor since 1986.

Democratic Senate Leader Jennifer Shilling hopes a groundswell of Democratic votes in November could elect three Democratic senators – enough to give her party control of that house of the Legislature. That could also cost Republicans up four or five seats in the Assembly, but the GOP would still have firm control there.

4. If a Republican President-elect calls, will Walker answer?

Walker has said he intends to finish his second four-year term, and recently hinted he could even seek a third term in 2018. But what if the presidential candidate he endorses before Wisconsin’s April primary wins the nomination, wins in November and calls the governor and says, “Scott, I need your help. Come to Washington.”

Or, if Walker’s popularity continues to hover at less than 40 percent, he could even drop a subtle hint to the Republican President-elect that he’d be open to leaving Wisconsin for a federal appointment.

Finally, one non-political development to watch:

5. How will Gannett reshape the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel?

When you spend 22 years of your journalism career working for the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, you worry about changes after Wisconsin’s largest newspaper is sold to the company that owns the most newspapers in America.

Specifically, will the Journal Sentinel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team survive Gannett’s cost-cutting journalism, which across the nation has turned reporters into “content generators?”

Will the Journal Sentinel’s strong editorial voice, which recently called for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to step down or be defeated in November because of his assaults on Open Records laws, be silenced? Will there be one editorial voice for all of Wisconsin’s Gannett newspapers, despite the differences in politics, economies and issues in Wausau and Milwaukee?

After the Gannett purchase, will Journal Sentinel reporters in the Capitol have to switch from investigative reporting to writing short features like the one on a “hometown hero” from Manitowoc, by the Gannett paper in that city, being honored in the Assembly.

So, 2016, we’ll be watching. Bring it on.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

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