Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Historic Turnover Will Change Legislature

Retirements, redistricting and members pursuing higher office could transform Legislature.

By - Mar 28th, 2022 11:38 am
Janet Bewley and Romaine Quinn.

Janet Bewley and Romaine Quinn.

Two faces could symbolize the potential historic turnover in who serves in the next Legislature that convenes in January: Republican Romaine Quinn, age 31, may replace retiring Senate Democratic Leader Janet Bewley, age 70.

This is not a prediction that Quinn, a former three-term Assembly member from Barron County, will beat the Democratic candidate (still to be decided) on the Nov. 8 ballot in northwest Wisconsin’s 25th Senate District. Instead, it’s an illustration of how much change in the legislative branch of state government could result from retirements, legislators’ making up-or-out decisions to seek higher office and the new legislative district boundaries to be drawn by the state Supreme Court.

The two top Senate Democrats, Bewley and Assistant Leader Janis Ringhand, are retiring. The third-ranking Senate Democrat, Caucus Chair Jeff Smith, of Eau Claire, could face a tough re-election bid in a region Republican President Donald Trump won easily in the 2020 election. Smith won his first term with 51% of the vote in 2018.

A third Senate Democrat, 20-year veteran Jon Erpenbach, is also retiring.

Another Senate Democrat, Brad Pfaff, is running for the Third Congressional seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Congressman Ron Kind. If Pfaff wins, a new senator would be elected from that LaCrosse-area district.

Two Assembly Democratic leaders – Reps. Mark Spreitzer and Dianne Hesselbein – are seeking the Senate seats of Ringhand and Erpenbach, respectively. Two new Assembly members will be elected in their districts.

Of the 21 Senate Republicans, three are not seeking re-election: Sens. Kathy Bernier, Jerry Petrowski and Roger Roth, who is running for lieutenant governor. A fourth GOP senator, Dale Kooyenga, has said he will not run again due to changes in his district under new maps adopted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but the court must reconsider the maps after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling has required this.

A fifth GOP senator, Pat Testin, is also running for lieutenant governor. If Testin is the next lieutenant governor, a special election would pick a new senator from that Stevens Point-area district.

This year’s Senate turnover continues a trend. Of the 33 state senators, 29 have been elected since 2010.

A long list of Assembly members have up-or-out fever. Two Assembly Democrats – Reps. David Bowen and Sara Rodriguez – are running for lieutenant governor. The incumbent, Mandela Barnes, is running for the U.S. Senate.

Among Assembly Republicans, Reps. Timothy Ramthun is running for governor, Amy Loudenbeck is running for secretary of state, Rachael Cabral-Guevara is running for Roth’s Senate seat, Jesse James is running for Petrowski’s seat, and Samantha Kerkman is running for Kenosha County executive on April 5.

Kerkman is the longest-serving Assembly Republican. If she is not elected county executive, she could run for an 11th term in the Legislature.

Then there are retirements. Five Assembly Republicans with a total of 62 years of legislative experience won’t seek re-election: Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Reps. Gary Tauchen, Jeremy Thiesfeldt, Mike Kuglitsch and Ken Skowronski.

The biggest surprise was Steineke, who would have been in line to be the next Assembly speaker if Speaker Robin Vos retired or sought another office.

When he announced that 12 years in the Assembly was enough, Steineke recounted his party’s decade of achievements this way:  “I’ve had a front row seat and helped accomplish some monumental reforms, including: Act 10, right-to-work legislation, prevailing wage reforms, expanding access to mental health, combating homelessness, addressing racial disparities, and rebalancing our state’s finances.”

State government expects a record $3.8-billion surplus in mid-2023 — a windfall Gov. Tony Evers and Republicans can’t agree on how to spend.

Of the 38 Assembly Democrats, four, including Spreitzer, Hesselbein, Bowen and Rodriquez are seeking higher office. Democratic Rep. Beth Meyers is not seeking re-election.

Assembly Democrats empowered their next generation of leaders this year. At the start of the 2021-22 session, the two top Assembly Democratic leaders’ average age was 48. When the 2023-24 session begins in January, that average age will be 26.

In a WisconsinEye interview, Assembly Democratic Leader Greta Neubauer said her party’s top campaign issues include ”economic security” for Wisconsin residents struggling financially to recover from the pandemic; more state aid for K-12 schools and colleges and universities; and giving more people access to health care by leveraging federal dollars to expand Medicaid to more middle-class residents.

The Legislature’s first LGBTQ leader, Neubauer, who is 30, said she “didn’t talk about” her personal life when she ran for the Assembly in 2018. Now, she says “it’s very important for people in leadership positions to talk about this.”

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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One thought on “The State of Politics: Historic Turnover Will Change Legislature”

  1. GodzillakingMKE says:

    Steineke is delusional. He is no friend the poor and homeless, the worker, and racism. Jim Steinke is guilty of election fraud and cheerleading a corrupt bloated GCCP drunk with power.

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