Professors’ Race Against Sensenbrenner No Academic Exercise

Posted September 10, 2007 at 6:45pm

Wisconsin elected a new Member of Congress in 2004 and again in 2006.

But don’t expect that trend to continue indefinitely. Except for freshman Rep. Steve Kagen (D), who has a tough re-election battle ahead of him in the Republican-leaning 8th district, the Badger State has one of the most entrenched Congressional delegations in the nation. [IMGCAP(1)]

Collectively, Reps. David Obey (D), Tom Petri (R) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R) have 94 years of Congressional service under their belts. Sen. Herb Kohl (D) was just elected to a fourth term and Sen. Russ Feingold (D) seems assured of one in 2010. Even the delegation’s youngest Members — Democratic Reps. Ron Kind (age 44) and Tammy Baldwin (age 45) and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan (age 37) — already are seasoned Capitol Hill veterans.

Add to this Congressional longevity the fact that Gov. Jim Doyle (D) is the early odds-on favorite to win a third term in 2010, and it’s small wonder why one longtime Milwaukee-based Democratic communications strategist observes, “It’s stunning — there’s such a lack of rising stars in the state, even in local politics.”

But this stability doesn’t mean there won’t be some interesting House elections in Wisconsin this cycle, or that the state is lacking for ambitious pols looking to move up.

The Green Bay-area 8th district race is sure to be an exciting contest to the end. Kagen, a free-spending allergist, won a wild Democratic primary and then edged state Assembly Speaker John Gard (R) by 2 points in a general election victory that seemed fueled by voters’ antipathy toward the national GOP as much as anything the candidates themselves did.

Gard, who is now out of the Legislature, is trying again. But he may not have the Republican field to himself. State Rep. Frank Lasee (R) is planning to run, and former Green Bay Mayor Paul Jadin (R) also is examining the race.

Kagen has not been able to escape controversy in his first year in office and Wisconsin political analysts wonder whether he will be able to stabilize his political position in the months ahead. But his outsider routine worked pretty well in the past cycle, and if voters are still angry in 2008, he could prevail once again.

One of the most fascinating Congressional races in the country — though hardly one of the most competitive — is taking place in Sensenbrenner’s district in the Milwaukee suburbs and exurbs. Sensenbrenner’s 62 percent showing last year against a college professor was his lowest victory percentage since he was first elected in 1978 with 61 percent.

This year, two friends on the faculty of Concordia University Wisconsin — a Republican and a Democrat — are running in tandem to defeat the 64-year-old Congressman. They are traveling around the district debating each other, campaigning against big money in politics and the special interests that dominate their own political parties. Republican Jim Burkee and Democrat Jeff Walz share a campaign coordinator and a Web site, and they are hoping to get approval from the Federal Election Commission to operate a joint fundraising committee. Already they are sharing all campaign expenses, even though for now they have separate campaign funds.

“There’s no modern precedent for this,” Burkee said.

It’s a gimmick that already has garnered the duo some national media attention, but even though they plan to debate each other 100 times in the next 300 days, it’s hard to imagine the end result being different than it has been in Sensenbrenner’s 15 other House campaigns. Still, Walz said that given the voters’ thirst for change, their quest is “very realistic.”

Even though he’s back in the minority for the first time in a dozen years, Sensenbrenner shows no signs of getting bored with his job.

If Sensenbrenner were to head for the exits sometime soon, state Assemblyman Ted Kanavas leads the list of Republicans who would probably take a look at running for the seat. Kanavas also is said to be eyeing a gubernatorial run, possibly in 2010.

It’s harder to find potential successors to Obey, who turns 69 next month, and Petri, who is 67, because no one believes they’ll ever leave.

“With the Obey and Petri districts, it’s like why even think about it?” said Brandon Scholz, a Madison-based lobbyist and former GOP political operative. “It isn’t going to happen.”

Scholz joked that would-be Obey successors “assume that when he dies he’ll take the district with him.” Still, Scholz identified state Sen. Julie Lassa (D) as a logical successor to the 20-term Congressman when he moves on. State Sen. Russ Decker (D), co-chairman of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, is another possibility. But Republicans also are expected to seriously contest the northwest Wisconsin district whenever Obey moves on.

Elsewhere, Democrats dream of contesting Ryan’s industrial-agricultural district in the southeast part of the state, and Republicans believe that the right kind of challenger could give Kind trouble in his southwestern district. But the reality is, the districts probably won’t be in play until both move on — and both are seen as possible candidates for Senate whenever Kohl, who is now 72, retires.

New state Assembly Speaker Michael Huebsch (R) is mentioned as a possible candidate for Kind’s 3rd district seat if there is a vacancy.

The only other district that could become vacant in the not-too-distant future, analysts believe, is Rep. Gwen Moore’s (D) Milwaukee-based 4th district. The 56-year-old sophomore Congresswoman, they say, could be settling in for a long and successful Congressional career. But sometimes she is mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor of Milwaukee or Milwaukee County executive.

“If Gwen wanted to be mayor, she could probably be elected,” the Democratic communications strategist said.

Moore’s Milwaukee-based district is the most Democratic in the state and the only one with a significant minority population. If she were to move on, possible candidates to succeed her include state Sen. Tim Carpenter (D), who finished third in the Democratic Congressional primary that Moore won in 2004; state Sen. Lena Taylor (D); state Rep. Jonathan Richards (D); and Milwaukee Alderman Mike D’Amato.

Other Democrats to watch in the state include state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D), an OB-GYN who is challenging a long-serving moderate Republican state Senator in a swing suburban district just north of Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the former Democratic Congressman and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate who no doubt would like to seek higher office again.

On the Republican list, the new attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, is extremely well-regarded, but at age 41, he isn’t likely to make a move for another office until there is a clear opening. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who dropped his bid for governor in the middle of the 2006 campaign, could run again. And former Rep. Mark Green, the GOP gubernatorial standard-bearer, could try for statewide office again. At the age of 47, he is currently biding his time serving as U.S. ambassador to Tanzania.