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State, congressional matchups in rural Wisconsin as Democrats seek to block GOP super majority

Published: Jul. 15, 2020 at 9:23 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - New fundraising reports for state and federal political races across Wisconsin provide shape to the fall election in a key battleground state, where Wisconsin remains a toss-up in the presidential election that could set the tone for down-ballot voting in battles for power across the state, most notably in the Republican-controlled state legislature.

State Democrats significantly outraised the state Republican party with more than $10 million raised this year and setting a party record, Governor Tony Evers noted Tuesday. The Republican party in contrast reported less than $1 million for the last quarter, which state executive director Mark Jefferson was quick to point out was only part of the state’s fundraising system, with Republican resources working in tandem with assembly and senate campaign committees as well as Republican National Committee funding.

“Doing more with less at the campaign level is something that we have done repeatedly on our side,” Jefferson noted. The Democrat party has traditionally outraised Republicans in Wisconsin, according to UW-Stevens Point political science professor John Blakeman.

“What this fundraising quarter shows is unprecedented enthusiasm to elect Democrats up and down the ticket,” state Democrat spokesperson Philip Shulman said.

Fundraising reports come as Republicans make clear their objective to take a veto-proof two-thirds majority in both the state Assembly and state Senate, a goal that would require picking up three more seats in both houses of the legislature. Democrats launched a Save the Veto campaign initiative in April to combat that—an high-priority initiative as both parties seek to wrangle influence over the next round of state and Congressional redistricting maps scheduled after the 2020 census is complete.

“What we need to do is protect the Governor’s veto so that come 2022 when we’re able to redraw the maps, he will have the authority to make sure Republicans aren’t able to cheat their way into power again,” Shulman said. Gov. Evers has established a redistricting commission with three retired judges who will craft maps next year with public input. Litigation over the maps drawn in 2011 behind closed doors while Republicans controlled both the legislature and the executive office have helped them retain power in both the legislature and 5 out of Wisconsin’s 8 congressional districts ever since, and up till last year faced ongoing lawsuits in court. A Marquette Law School poll found widespread support in Wisconsin for a nonpartisan redistricting process.

A super majority in both houses means an override to the Governor’s veto on Republican-drawn maps. To that end, Republicans say they’ve turned out more candidates in Assembly races than any election since 1986, the year former Governor Tommy Thompson was first elected.

“There’s a lot of effort that goes into trying to create a two-thirds majority in the legislature, and it starts with candidate recruitment,” Jefferson noted. “Most years, we have somewhere in the terms of high 70s or low 80s running.” This year, 92 out of the 99 Assembly races have a Republican on the ballot.

State senate and Assembly Races: Central, Northern Wisconsin

While Republicans are eyeing districts in the areas of Green Bay, western Wisconsin, and La Crosse, Rural Wisconsin remains a Republican core voter base where the GOP needs to pick up a strong showing in the fall and Democrats look to make further inroads.

Republicans admit freshman Senator Patrick Testin (R-24) in Stevens Point could face some serious opposition, where he’s being challenged by former Stevens Point police officer and city clerk Paul Piotrowski, a Democrat who has raised about $100,000 in the last quarter--more than double Testin’s fundraising. It’s one of the races where state Democrats, including the State Senate Democratic Committee, are pouring thousands of dollars behind the Democrat candidate.

“He’s worked that district very hard, but he’s a freshman, so he’ll have a very competitive race,” Jefferson noted.

Elsewhere in northern Wisconsin, Democrats appear to anticipate staying on the defensive in Assembly District 74, where longtime incumbent Beth Meyers raised more than $100,000, including about $35,000 from the state Democrat party--and thousands more from other progressive committees and Democrat campaigns. Republican challenger James Bolen, however, has raised just a few thousand as of the end of June. Shulman declined to discuss specific districts, but the GOP’s Jefferson, as well as Professor Blakeman, identified the sprawling northern district as one of the seats the GOP hopes to flip towards the desired super majority.

“I would expect the Wisconsin state Democratic party to start pouring a lot of money into some of these Senate, Assembly districts that are going to be targeted,” Blakeman noted.

An open seat up for grabs but expected to remain Republican falls in Rep. Bob Kulp’s district covering Marshfield, where four Republican challengers and one Democrat have filed to replace Kulp who announced his retirement earlier this year.

Congressional Elections: Central Wisconsin

Republicans hope to run a competitive bid to unseat longtime Democrat incumbent Ron Kind in the 3rd Congressional district, where former Navy SEAL Derrick van Orden and public relations professional Jessi Ebben compete in the Republican primary. While Rep. Kind has overall far outraised his opponents with $1.4 million raised and a total of $3 million cash on hand, Van Orden--endorsed by former Gov. Scott Walker and former Rep. Sean Duffy—pulled about $500,000 in the last quarter, exceeding Kind’s $234,000 for the same period.

Covering La Crosse and Eau Claire but also reaching into central Wisconsin’s Portage County, Kind pulled a 19-point lead in his last election in a district rated as leaning or likely left in multiple political rankings, but won by President Donald Trump in 2016.

“[Kind] is raising a lot of money from places you wouldn’t normally think about—people affiliated with the insurance industry, with businesses, the health industry,” Blakeman noted. “Whereas Van Orden is raising a lot of money from WinRed, which is the Republican grassroots fundraising machine.”

62% of Kind’s fundraising this quarter came from political action committees, according to financial reports, and 77% of his total fundraising for the current cycle. The vast majority of Van Orden’s funding, however, came through individual contributions. Both candidates had raised significant amounts through their party’s respective online grassroots fundraising platforms, which facilitates small-donor contributions.

In the 7th Congressional district, where Congressman Tom Tiffany will face Democrat Tricia Zunker for a second time in November after winning the special election in May, Tiffany’s fundraising maintains a steady stream at more than $200,000 raised to Zunker’s almost-$60,000.

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