Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Final Notes From The Campaign-Trail

After 210 interviews with candidates, some observations on a crazy election.

By - Nov 7th, 2016 11:55 am
Khary Penebaker. Photo courtesy of Khary for Congress.

Khary Penebaker. Photo courtesy of Khary for Congress.

WisconsinEye taped about 210 interviews with candidates for Congress and the Legislature this year, going to Green Bay (three times), Milwaukee, Wausau, Racine, Stevens Point, La Crosse, Rhinelander, Fennimore and River Falls. Time for a few observations culled from 70 hours of interviews:

*Bernie Babies: Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders won Wisconsin’s April Democratic presidential primary, thanks to the help of hundreds of volunteers who put careers and lives on hold to join his calls for free university tuition, a single-payer health care system and fixing income inequality.

Several “feel the Bern” volunteers channeled their passion into running for the Assembly for the first time. There’s too many of them to name here, but they have learned firsthand the differences between organizing for a statewide presidential primary and running for office themselves.

One sign of that idealism: Many Bernie Baby candidates refused to raise money for their Assembly campaigns, saying they did not want to be tainted by the corrupt campaign-finance system that has taken over both the nation and state. One Bernie Baby bristled at orders from his Democratic Party strategist to do nothing but beg for cash.

In elections clogged with the ads, voicemail messages and mailbox stuffers of candidates for President, U.S. Senate and their opponents, will the “we’re pure” message of Bernie Babies resonate Tuesday?

*Polar Opposites: Khary Penebaker is the Democrat running against the dean of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation, Fifth District Republican James Sensenbrenner, a U.S. House member since 1979.

Sensenbrenner is 73 years old; Penebaker, 39. Sensenbrenner is a brash white Congressional insider and lawyer who has either drawn up or approved every redistricting map of U.S. House districts since the 1990 Census.

Penebaker is a successful African-American businessman running for office for the first time. Only 10.4 percent of Fifth District residents are minorities.

And Sensenbrenner’s recent winning margins were 69 percent in 2014, 67 percent in 2012 and 69 percent in 2010. Wednesday, Wisconsin Democrats may want to give Penebaker a Profile in Courage award.

*”Status Quo” Primary: Milwaukee Democrats could have replaced three veteran Assembly members – Reps. Leon Young, Josh Zepnick and Christine Sinicki – in the August primary. Instead, each of them will return to the Capitol for two more years. As Democrats statewide search for a new winning vision, and a candidate for governor in 2018, will these three Milwaukee Democrats who have served a total of 55 years in the Assembly have any new ideas to offer?

*No Milwaukee “Marshall Plan”: In the wake of August racial unrest, protests and violence in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, dozens of candidates for the Legislature were asked: “How should state government help Wisconsin’s largest city?”

The most common answer was, “Milwaukee leaders – and not me – must agree on what the city needs, and tell us.”

*Vetting Democrats for governor: Three potential Democratic candidates for governor – Senate Democratic Leader Jennifer Shilling, of La Crosse; Eau Claire Rep. Dana Wachs, and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson – are on the ballot tomorrow. Shilling and Wachs are seeking re-election; Nelson is running for the 8th District seat in the U.S. House open because Republican Reid Ribble retired. If any of the three lose Tuesday, it would damage – if not destroy – their claim to be able to lead Democrats back into the governor’s office in January 2019.

One more potential Democratic candidate for governor, 3rd District Congressman Ron Kind, has no opponent Tuesday. Kind, who has held a safe seat since 1996, is not expected to run for governor.

Another Democrat, former state Sen. Tim Cullen, of Janesville, is traveling statewide to organize his campaign for governor. Depending on how voters treat Shilling, Wachs and Nelson tomorrow, Cullen could face a primary.

*”Catholic? Democrat? No way!” Dennis Hunt, the Democratic candidate in the no-incumbent 67th Assembly District, said someone he had known for decades actually hit him after they discussed Hunt’s campaign.

Why? The slugger said it was impossible for someone to be both a “good Catholic,” which Hunt calls himself on his campaign website, and a Democrat.

Finally, as the presidential election between the two most disliked candidates in modern U.S. history ends, let’s remember the plea President Gerald Ford offered after taking the oath of office on Aug. 9, 1974:

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

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

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