clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wisconsin’s primaries are setup for the real battle in November

It’s a key state for Trump’s chances, and Republicans hope to win a supermajority in the state legislature.

Tony Evers, now Wisconsin’s governor, campaigning in 2018.
Darren Hauck/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The main event in Wisconsin’s general election this fall will be the presidential contest, especially since it’s one of the most important swing states in the country. But Tuesday’s primaries in the state will have interesting implications at both the congressional and state legislative levels.

For the legislature, Democrats are trying to stop Republicans from winning supermajorities in both chambers. If the GOP wins those supermajorities, they could override Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’s vetoes and block any attempts to reform their extremely gerrymandered statehouse maps.

Meanwhile, one of Wisconsin’s eight congressional seats might be in play — the third district, which Trump won in 2016 and is represented by a longtime Democrat, Rep. Ron Kind (D). He faces a primary challenger from the left, and two Republicans with the backing of different factions of the party are battling for the nomination to take him on.

Finally, in the Fifth District, there will be a passing of the torch, as Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R), who has been in Congress since 1979, is retiring. His likely replacement is already quite well-known in the state: It’s state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who’s been at the center of many controversies in Wisconsin’s tumultuous recent politics — though Fitzgerald has to win the primary first.

Ron Kind draws challenges from left and right in Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District

Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI)
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Wisconsin’s Third District, spanning the state’s southwest, is the closest thing to a swing district in the Badger State on the presidential level — Donald Trump won there by 4.5 percentage points in 2016. But the district’s congressional seat has long been occupied by Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat who first entered Congress in 1997 and has won all his recent reelection contests comfortably. (Kind was unopposed in the general election in 2016, and won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2018.)

Sensitive to his district’s pro-Trump result in 2016, Kind has stressed his moderation. For instance, he was cautious on the topic of President Trump’s impeachment (in explaining his eventual vote for it, he emphasized that he’s “the only member of Congress who has voted to open impeachment inquiries against Presidents Clinton and Trump.”)

As a result, Kind has drawn challengers from both the left and right. In the Democratic primary, he’s facing Mark Neumann, a former missionary and pediatrician. Neumann has criticized Kind’s lack of support for Medicare-for-All, but his primary challenge hasn’t drawn much national attention. Kind is the clear favorite, according to Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In the Republican primary, meanwhile, retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden is running against public relations professional Jessi Ebben. Van Orden has raised much more money and won the endorsement of former Gov. Scott Walker (R) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R), making him the GOP leadership’s preferred candidate. Ebben, meanwhile, has won the backing of Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-OH) and the House Freedom Caucus’s political arm.

Both are running as conservative Trump supporters, but, as Olivia Herken of the Lacrosse Tribune recently wrote, Van Orden has criticized Ebben for signing a petition to recall Gov. Walker back in 2011. Ebben (who is 30 years old) countered by saying she only did so because she believed Democratic “lies” back then, and that she’s now a conservative “convert.” The Cook Political Report currently rates this race as “Likely Democratic,” but still, Republicans are hopeful for a pickup if Trump can perform well in the district again.

Tony Evers’s foe seeks seat in Wisconsin’s Fifth Congressional District

State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (right) during a 2011 press conference by then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The retirement of 21-term Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner means an open-seat contest in the Fifth District, which encompasses suburbs of Milwaukee. The district is heavily Republican, so the winner of the GOP primary could secure a safe Republican seat for some time (depending on how redistricting goes).

The frontrunner here is Scott Fitzgerald, the majority leader of the Wisconsin state Senate, a staunch social conservative who has been a major player in the controversies that have roiled the state starting with former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. “He’s one of the few Republican leaders who’s still standing from 10 years ago,” says Burden.

Fitzgerald helped craft a heavily gerrymandered state legislature map to entrench Republican majorities, and passed the 2011 law that restricted public sector unions’ collective bargaining abilities.

Then, in the lame-duck session after Walker lost the 2018 election to Democrat Tony Evers, Fitzgerald and Republican legislators passed new laws restricting the powers of the governor’s office. More recently, Fitzgerald has been sparring with Evers over the governor’s statewide mask-wearing mandate.

Fitzgerald’s opponent in the primary is businessman Cliff DeTemple, who has argued that he has less “baggage” and hasn’t been “in office too long,” but DeTemple is viewed as the underdog. In the general election, the GOP nominee will face Democrat Tom Palzewicz, an executive coaching consultant, but Palzewicz will face an uphill battle due to this district’s Republican lean.

Key state legislative races could give Republicans a supermajority

Though Evers won the governorship for Democrats in 2018, both chambers of Wisconsin’s state legislature remained in Republican hands, thanks in part to some spectacular gerrymandering. The good news for Democrats there was that Evers’s win would, it seemed, give him the power to veto unfair maps during the next redistricting in the 2021-2022 session.

There’s just one catch — if Republicans manage to flip just six state legislative seats (three in the Assembly and three in the Senate), they’ll control two-thirds of each chamber, which would let them override Evers’s vetoes and gerrymander the state to their hearts’ content.

That would be a tall order, but Mitchell Schmidt of the Wisconsin State Journal recently ran down the key districts that Republicans say they’re focusing on flipping. Some of those that have contested primaries are:

  • Senate District 10: State Sen. Patty Schachtner (D-WI) is the incumbent, and the Republican primary features state Rep. Bob Stafsholt and small business owner Cherie Link battling for the nomination to take her on.
  • Senate District 30: The Democratic incumbent here, Dave Hansen is retiring. The Democratic primary to replace him features his nephew Jonathan Hansen (a city council member) running against former healthcare executive Sandra Ewald. The GOP nominee will be attorney Eric Wimberger, who ran for this seat and lost in 2016.
  • Senate District 32: Democratic incumbent Jennifer Shilling, who won her last reelection extremely narrowly over former state Sen. Dan Kapanke (R), isn’t running again. Kapanke will be the Republican nominee again. Candidates running in the Democratic primary are former state Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff (who was ousted from that post by state Senate Republicans), nurse Jayne Swiggum, and La Crosse man Paul Weber.
  • Assembly District 14: State Rep. Robyn Vining is the Democratic incumbent here — she won by 0.4 percent of the vote in 2018. The Republican primary contenders are school board member Linda Boucher, Baptist church outreach ministry director Bonnie Lee, and electrician Steven Shevey.

So these primaries will determine the candidates in these races, which will be key to determining whether the GOP can pull off a supermajority. But Wisconsin Democrats aren’t taking this threat lightly; they’ve launched a campaign called “Save the Veto,” and the state party just raised $10 million, the best fundraising quarter in its history.

Elsewhere in the state legislature contests, the longest-serving state legislator in American history — 93-year-old state Sen. Fred Risser (D), who’s represented the 26th district since 1962 — is retiring. This is a safe Democratic seat, and seven Democrats are vying for the nomination. Burden points to business owner Kelda Roys as the leading candidate, but the contest also features two young Muslim women of color, Nada Elmikashfi and Aisha Moe. Both are critical of the Democratic establishment, and announced their bids before Risser decided to retire. Brianna Reilly of the Cap Times has more on this primary here.

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.