If Wisconsin had not endured enough political turmoil already this cycle, Sen. Herb Kohl’s retirement puts a formerly safe Democratic seat up for grabs.
Kohl’s retirement is a major disappointment for Democrats, who have already had five other Senate retirements this year. The Friday surprise creates the fifth competitive open seat that Democrats will have to defend in 2012, when the party was already largely expected to play defense. Senate Democrats must defend 23 seats in this cycle, compared with only 10 GOP-held seats that Republicans are trying keep.
The GOP needs just four seats to win back control of the chamber.
Wisconsin has long been a battleground state where presidential candidates will go down to the wire fighting for every last electoral vote. But over the course of the past year, the state has witnessed massive political upheaval — from weeks of overnight protesters camped out in the state Capitol, a state Supreme Court race that garnered national attention and an upcoming recall election for state lawmakers.
This competitive Senate race might include one of biggest names on Capitol Hill who is quickly becoming a national figure — Kohl’s retirement forces a tough decision for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. In the midst of the biggest budget battle in decades, the seven-term Republican must decide whether he will keep his current job or follow his longtime aspirations to run statewide.
“It’s not a secret that Paul Ryan has talked about this seat,” said Scott Becher, a veteran Wisconsin Republican strategist. “The downside is that he gives up a really good job in the House. Does he want to give up something that he’s worked so hard for — and the opportunity to eventually be a Speaker of the House — to be a U.S. Senator and eventually run for president?”
Ryan did nothing to tamp down speculation that he was considering a bid.
“I was surprised by Senator Kohl’s announcement and want to take some time over the next few days to discuss this news with my family and supporters before making any decision about how I’m best able to serve my employers in the First Congressional District, our state and nation,” Ryan said in a statement Friday after Kohl announced his retirement.
Kohl’s decision to step down after four terms shocked many on Capitol Hill — including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democrats in the Wisconsin delegation. DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) told reporters last month that she did not expect any more retirements in her caucus.
Roll Call Politics moved its rating of this race from Leans Democratic to Tossup.
Democrats quickly sought to push back on the news, emphasizing a favorable political climate in the state, including statewide polls showing a generic ballot advantage.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.