Wisconsin Delegation Hinges on Future Senate Races

The makeup of the Wisconsin congressional delegation won’t change drastically this November, but there are contentious elections ahead for the Badger State.

The question of what happens next for the delegation hinges on the Senate re-election campaigns in 2016 and 2018, respectively, for Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin. The politically polar opposites, both in their first terms, illustrate the recent tumultuous nature of Wisconsin politics.

“We’ve seen such massive upheaval from Wisconsin politics in the last four years,” said Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “It’s hard to put your finger on what the character of Wisconsin politics is like right now.”

Baldwin is an openly gay Democrat elected in 2012 who has held political office since she was 24 years old. Johnson is a tea-party-aligned Republican and successful businessman who ousted a Democratic incumbent two years earlier.

The changing dynamic between presidential and midterm years could help explain how one state elected two dramatically different senators. High turnout in presidential years tends to favor Democrats across the country and especially in Wisconsin (the last GOP presidential candidate to win Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan in 1984).

However, in the next Senate races, the tables could turn again. Baldwin is up for re-election in 2018, a midterm year, and strategists in the state said she could face a Republican challenge from Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, Rep. Sean P. Duffy or Rep. Paul D. Ryan. The strategists noted that Ryan’s candidacy is less likely given his seniority in the House.

The more pressing challenge for Republicans is Johnson’s re-election campaign in 2016.

No Republican is openly floating a primary challenge against Johnson yet, but strategists speculate he will face a Democratic challenge from former Sen. Russ Feingold, whom Johnson defeated in 2010, or Rep. Ron Kind, who considered running in 2012.

A Kind Senate bid would mean an open seat in a Democratic-leaning House district, opening the door for ambitious Democrats and some Republicans to run for Congress. The top Democratic names mentioned for Kind’s seat were state Sens. Jennifer Shilling and Kathleen Vinehout, and state Rep. Katrina Shankland.

Matt Batzel, executive director of American Majority, which helps elect conservative candidates, said Kind’s seat “could be in play if there is a strong candidate in a midterm year.” Batzel named GOP state Rep. Howard Marklein and current secretary of State candidate Julian Bradley — a former professional wrestler — as potential contenders in Kind’s district.

But GOP strategist Mark Graul poured some cold water on his party’s chances in the 3rd District, which runs along the state’s western border with Minnesota and Iowa. Graul said Kind’s seat is “much more likely to stay in Democratic hands than switch to a Republican with the way it was redrawn.”

Republicans bolstered their 5-3 advantage in the delegation — which they gained in the 2010 elections — with the 2011 redistricting plan drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

This year, Republicans are competing for retiring Rep. Tom Petri’s seat in the 6th district, which will likely remain in Republican hands. The next seat likely to open at some point through retirement belongs to GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who was elected to Congress in 1978.

Graul cautioned against the assumption that Sensenbrenner will retire soon, noting that he is “still a pretty active and aggressive legislator.” Still, there is no shortage of Republicans looking to run in Sensenbrenner’s 5th District, which is the most heavily Republican district in the state.

Wisconsin Republican strategists named Kleefisch, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, state Sens. Leah Vukmir and Paul Farrow, and state Rep. Dale Kooyenga as potential candidates for Sensenbrenner’s seat.

There are Republican districts that could be vulnerable to a Democratic challenge. Democrats are eying Duffy’s 7th District and Rep. Reid Ribble’s 8th District. Democratic consultant Eric Hogensen said those areas have a “strong tradition of nonpartisanship,” which could work in his party’s favor in a presidential year.

However, Democratic challengers would face an uphill climb against the power of incumbency, since, as Graul noted, “I don’t see Ribble or Duffy going anywhere soon.”

Up-and-coming politicos will also have to wait on the sidelines in the 1st, 2nd and 4th districts. After a failed vice presidential bid and with rising influence in the House, Ryan is unlikely to vacate his seat soon. Neither are Democrats Mark Pocan, a freshman, and Gwen Moore. Even if Ryan decided to run for president in 2016, his name could also appear on the ballot for his congressional district, as it did in 2012.

While some congressional districts could be competitive in future elections, Wisconsin has followed the nation in becoming increasingly polarized; voting along party lines in a state that historically split tickets. So, for rising stars in today’s political climate, as Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson noted, “It’s really a matter of being able to pump up your base.”