A look at Wisconsin

Posted July 11, 2003 at 6:32pm

For a state that split almost dead even between Democrats and Republicans in the 2000 presidential contest, Wisconsin was politically dead during the 2002 cycle — at least when it came to competitive Congressional races. [IMGCAP(1)]

But already there’s some indication that could change in 2004. And with the delegation’s current mix of aging veterans, ambitious youths and marginal districts, there is great potential for the quiet equilibrium to get rocked in coming cycles.

Although there’s still plenty of time for things to get interesting in next year’s Senate contest, Republicans failed to entice two top-tier challengers into the race against Sen. Russ Feingold (D). Both former Gov. and current Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (R) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) passed on the race after being heavily recruited, but party leaders are still saying that Feingold will be a top target.

Feingold narrowly won a second term in 1998 with 51 percent of the vote against then-Rep. Mark Neumann (R). Neumann quietly filed to run again in mid-June, and at the end of March he showed roughly $75,000 left in a campaign account.

Also preparing to run are state Sen. Bob Welch, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Herb Kohl (D) in 1994, and millionaire businessman Tim Michels, a possible self-funder who appears to be generating the most buzz among GOP insiders.

Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley, Milwaukee County Board member Tim Johnson and state Rep. Terri McCormick are also mentioned as Senate possibilities.

Broadcasting executive David Magnum, another potential self-funder, has also been mentioned, but insiders say that he is now more likely to challenge Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) next year.

Baldwin, the only openly lesbian Member, won an open-seat race in 1998 and, after being targeted in 2000, escaped a top-tier challenge last cycle. Still, she remains the most vulnerable Democrat in the House delegation, and Republicans could target her again in a presidential election year.

Democrat Al Gore carried the Badger State by just 5,709 votes in the 2000 presidential election — although the gap may have been artificially close, as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader took 94,000 votes — and it will be a top target in President Bush’s re-election campaign next year.

So far this year the only House race in the state to generate a buzz is a potential serious challenge to Rep. David Obey (D), the dean of the state’s delegation and the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee.

Former MTV “Real World” cast ember and current Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy created quite a splash earlier this month when he confirmed that he is contemplating a challenge to Obey. Duffy was in Washington, D.C., recently to discuss a possible bid with Republican operatives. The 31-year-old lawyer appeared on “The Real World Boston” in 1997 and was elected to his current position last November.

Obey, who is currently serving his 17th term, was re-elected in 2002 with 64 percent of the vote and has not faced a high-profile challenge in years. Although he is not viewed as vulnerable, a competitive race would likely emerge when he vacates the northwest Wisconsin seat. The district voted 48 percent for Gore and 47 percent for Bush in 2000.

In coming years, retirements could create competitive races in other districts as well.

Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R), Tom Petri (R) and Gerry Kleczka (D) are in their 13th, 12th and 10th terms, respectively, although none has indicated that he is ready to hand in his voting card at the end of the 108th Congress.

Sensenbrenner and Kleczka represent staunchly Republican and Democratic districts respectively (Kleczka’s Milwaukee-based 4th district had voted narrowly for Bush in 2000, but after redistricting the seat is now solidly Democratic), but both parties are likely to play in the eventual race to succeed Petri in the centrally located 6th district.

Meanwhile, the future statewide ambitions of three younger rising stars could also soon create the potential for competitive open seats. Reps. Ron Kind (D), Mark Green (R) and Paul Ryan (R) are all widely viewed as future statewide candidates.

Kind explored running for governor last year, and the 40-year-old Congressman was quietly laying the groundwork for a Senate run before Kohl put to rest rumors that he might retire in 2006. If the 68-year-old millionaire owner of the Milwaukee Bucks changes course and does retire, at least two House Members are likely to vie for the seat.

Kind, a former Harvard quarterback, was elected in 1996 with 52 percent but has been re-elected by wide margins since. His 3rd district voted 49 percent to 46 percent for Gore in 2000 (Nader took 5 percent), and the western Wisconsin seat would be competitive if it became vacant.

Ryan resisted the White House’s Senate lobbying efforts this go-round, but an open seat would be much harder to resist.

Green, meanwhile, has publicly stated he has future plans to run for statewide office, although it remains unclear which office he would seek. Some wanted him to run for attorney general in 2002, and he could look to run for that office or governor in 2006. Ryan is also mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.

Both Ryan and Green represent only marginally Republican seats that would be competitive for Democrats when they become open.

Although the Republican performance in Ryan’s Kenosha-based 1st district was improved during redistricting in the previous cycle, the seat is still marginal.

Green beat an incumbent Democrat for his Green Bay-based 8th district seat, and despite his strong re-election margins, Democrats could strongly contest an open-seat race.

The party has fared well in the state recently, with last year’s election of Gov. Jim Doyle (D) and four consecutive victories in presidential elections.

There was other good news for state Democrats in the 2000 presidential results, as Gore carried many traditionally Republican areas and marginal counties in western Wisconsin, making it one of the only rural areas in the country where he won big and ran ahead of Democratic norms. One of his biggest margins was in Menominee County, which is contiguous with an American Indian reservation located in Green’s 8th district.

Meanwhile, the state has some other political players sidelined who could opt back into the game at any point.

Former Rep. Tom Barrett (D), who lost a gubernatorial primary last year after his House seat was eliminated during redistricting, still has political life left. Barrett, who turns 50 this year, said he is likely to run for mayor of Milwaukee in 2004, a potential springboard to higher office.

Also still looming large on the state’s political landscape is Thompson, who could run for governor again or look to the Senate at some point.