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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.

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