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Roll Call

Senate Race Heats Up House Hunt in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is already bracing for multiple recall elections and a sudden Senate vacancy, but the Badger State’s political upheaval might soon include two open House seats.

Neither Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D) nor Ron Kind (D) have announced plans to run for the Senate seat to be vacated in 2012 by Herb Kohl (D). But the state’s political players believe it’s simply a matter of time. And while the field is by no means set, politicians from both sides of the aisle are beginning to prepare for what could end up being a free-for-all.

Democrats have held Wisconsin’s 2nd and 3rd district seats for more than a decade. But they will feature very different races.

Baldwin’s 2nd district, which includes Madison, is a Democratic stronghold in which President Barack Obama defeated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by almost 40 points in 2008. The 3rd district, while occupied by Kind since 1996, leans Democratic but is considered a swing district that should be far more competitive next fall.

“CD2 is ours no matter what,” state Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski wrote in an email to Roll Call. “I think Tammy got the most raw votes of any House Dem in 2010.”

Indeed, Baldwin had 50,000 more votes than the next-closest Democrat to win last fall.

Republicans do not pretend they have a good chance at winning the seat, even if its boundaries shift through the redistricting process. That means the most important race in the 2nd district will likely be the Democratic primary.

State Rep. Kelda Roys, leader of the House Democratic Caucus, confirmed last week that she’s preparing to run should Baldwin seek statewide office.

“I’m definitely giving it serious consideration, so if the time comes when she declares, I’ll be able to hit the ground running,” Roys told Roll Call.

First elected to the state legislature in 2008, the 31-year-old is a former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. And she knows she will not be the only Democrat to seek Baldwin’s seat.

She cited, for example, the likely candidacy of state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, whom a top Wisconsin Democratic operative suggested would be one of the strongest candidates in the hypothetical primary election.

Erpenbach was among the state Senators who spent several weeks in Illinois to deny the state Senate a quorum in an attempt to block Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) budget plans to curtail collective bargaining rights for state workers. And he has been an outspoken voice in the recall efforts against state Senators.

“I’m guessing you’re going to see a field of no less than four to six people,” the Democratic operative said. “That district is full of Democrats. … And a seat like that comes up so infrequently.”

The 3rd district is a different story.

Democrats acknowledge they don’t have many people to pick from in that area, especially because those who might be interested are involved in recall elections.

“You look at the bench in that area and it’s tough,” the Democratic operative said. “That could be very difficult — it’s not an automatic.”

The operative called state Rep. Jennifer Shilling, a former Kind aide, an “up-and-comer.” But Shilling is challenging state Sen. Dan Kapanke in this summer’s recall election.

Ironically, on the Republican side, Kapanke is among the only names in the discussion for Kind’s seat, according to a Washington-based Republican operative.

Kapanke has decent name recognition in the district, having earned almost 47 percent of the vote in a 2010 bid against Kind. Kapanke raised nearly $1.9 million in the effort.

But Kapanke’s state Senate district was one of the first to be certified for a recall election this summer. And it’s unclear if either Kapanke or Shilling would be positioned to mount a Congressional bid immediately after the recall. Another side effect to these July 12 recall elections: Should the Democrats capture three seats, they would flip Senate control and have more influence over redistricting.

Zielinski said whomever runs should benefit from enthusiastic Democrats who turned out for liberal candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg in April’s high-profile Wisconsin Supreme Court contest. That election, which Kloppenburg narrowly lost, was largely seen as a referendum on Walker’s budget. The 3rd district’s two largest cities, Eau Claire and La Crosse, supported Kloppenburg with 58 percent and 59 percent of the vote respectively.

While there’s no shortage of uncertainty in the 2nd and 3rd districts, one thing is for sure: Wisconsin will be a political battleground on multiple fronts in the 2012 cycle. There’s the residual effects of the recall elections, a presidential contest, a possible recall election targeting Walker and, of course, the fight to replace Kohl.

The Democratic operative summed it up: “Wisconsin is going to be ground zero.”

Correction: June 1, 2011

An earlier version gave an incorrect title for Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski.

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