Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Can Democrats Retake State Senate?

An uphill fight. Retirements by seven incumbents make races hard to call.

By - May 11th, 2020 11:21 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Dave Reid.

With nomination papers for candidates on Nov. 3 due three weeks from today, state Senate Democrats must count on their new quarterback — Sen. Janet Bewley of Mason — and voter anger at Republicans for come-from-behind victories they need to control the Senate.

Republicans have a 19-14 lead in the Senate, which will undergo one of the biggest makeovers in decades when it reconvenes in January.

Two Republicans – Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, of Juneau, and Joint Finance Committee member Tom Tiffany, of Minocqua – hope to be serving in the U.S. House in January. A third Republican, veteran Sen. Luther Olsen, of Ripon, will be retired by then.

Four veteran Senate Democrats — Fred Risser, of Madison, the longest-serving state legislator in the nation; Jennifer Shilling, of La Crosse, Mark Miller, of Monona, and Dave Hansen, of Green Bay – are also retiring. The Risser and Miller seats are safely Democratic.

Shilling stepped aside as leader after saying that 20 years in the Legislature was enough. Shilling faced a tough re-election fight against former Republican Sen. Dan Kapanke, also from La Crosse. He lost to Shilling by 61 votes in 2016.

The former state agriculture secretary, Brad Pfaff, an Onalaska Democrat, will face Kapanke on Nov. 3. Pfaff was forced out of the job when Senate Republicans refused to confirm him.

Bewley, who is from Mason (population 90) in Bayfield County and near the state’s northern border, was elected leader of Senate Democrats; Sen. Janis Ringhand, of Evansville, was elected assistant leader. Their terms are up in 2022.

Bewley has her hands full:

*She must oversee the final days of recruiting Democratic candidates for four Republican-held seats up Nov. 3.

*She must help her most at-risk incumbent, Democratic Sen. Patty Schachtner, of Somerset, keep a seat Republicans held for decades. Schachtner won a 2018 special election. Two Republicans, Rep. Robert Stafsholt, of New Richmond, and Cherie Link, of Somerset, have registered as candidates.

*She must advise a nephew of the retiring Hansen, DePere alderman Jonathan Hansen, on how to keep the Senate job his uncle won by 2,039 votes in 2016. Although Bewley said last week that the Hansen name is well-known in the Green Bay-area, the Republican running against Jonathan Hansen — attorney Eric Wimberger — got 48 percent of the vote against Dave Hansen four years ago.

*She must raise money for all Senate Democratic candidates – incumbents and first-timers.

*She must balance all this with her role as a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which is still planning on holding an in-person presidential nominating convention in Milwaukee during the week of Aug. 17. And, on June 12, Bewley must deliver a fire-up speech to the first virtual state Democratic Party convention in history.

But Bewley has met tough challenges before.

About 26 years ago, she recognized that alcohol was wrecking her life and quit drinking. She went on to be dean of students at Northland College, a community relations officer for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) and a member of Ashland’s city council.

To win control of the Senate, Democrats must hold the Shilling, Hansen and Schachtner seats and win three of these four seats now held by Republicans:

District 24: First-term Republican Sen. Pat Testin, of Stevens Point, got 52 percent of the vote four years ago. Although Democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland passed on running against Testin, Bewley praised the Democrat in that race, retired Stevens Point police officer and city clerk Paul Piotrowski.

District 18: First-term Republican Sen. Dan Feyen, of Fond du Lac, is being opposed by a 23-year-old recent college graduate, Aaron Wojciechowski, of Oshkosh, who says he would be the first Latino to serve in the Senate and would join the Legislature’s LGBTQ+ caucus. Feyen got 55 percent of the vote in 2016.

District 12: With Tiffany running for Congress, Assistant Assembly Republican Leader Mary Felzkowski, of Irma, is her party’s candidate. Democrats Wendy Klawitter, of Wausaukee, and Ed Vocke, of Minocqua, are expected to face each other in an August primary.

District 14: With Olsen retiring, Republican Rep. Joan Ballweg, of Markesan, hopes to win a GOP primary and then the Senate seat. Two Democrats, union leader Joni Anderson, of Adams, and John Small, of Fox Lake, have registered to also run.

Could Democrats really control the Senate in January? It’s a daunting task. Says Bewley: “We’ve got the things in place that could make it happen.”

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

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