A state budget that dragged into September and a proposed $10 billion Foxconn manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin were some of the top stories of 2017.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, helped shepherd through the GOP tax bill as speculation popped up around his future in politics.
And while Gov. Scott Walker announced plans to run for a third term, a bevy of Dems jumped in the field for a chance to face him.
Throughout the year, WisPolitics.com collected insight from insiders to gauge the fortunes of key political figures and issues. The year-end Stock Report is based off that feedback and the risings, mixed and fallings throughout the year.
Scott Walker: It wasn’t always pretty. But the guv pushes through a two-year $76 billion budget that boosts K-12 aid while keeping property taxes in check, lands a multi-billion-dollar project from Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn and formally launches his bid for guv. Now, the question is whether it will all pay off in 2018. Walker’s poll numbers took a hit in 2015 as he left the state to run for president, putting the guv underwater. But he dedicated himself to a series of listening sessions around Wisconsin, providing input to his budget planning such as a $649 million boost to K-12 education. Lawmakers eventually trimmed that. But the process dragged into September amid a standoff over transportation funding that insiders say underscored the guv’s failure to come up with a long-term solution that fit with his promise not to raise the gas tax or registration fee. It also exposed deep rifts among Capitol Republicans, especially after Walker agrees to veto pledges to win last-minute support from several GOP senators. But the bottom line for Walker is the ability to go out and sell the education component of the budget along with the elimination of the state forestry tax and a property tax bill on the median-valued home that is projected to be lower in 2018 than it was in 2010. Foxconn, some election-watchers believe, could be a trickier sell with the public. When Walker initially announced the project, it seemed like a grand slam with a commitment to spend $10 billion and create up to 13,000 jobs. But as more details emerged, it looked like less of a clear win, particularly with the state not expected to break even on the deal until at least 2042-43. Then there are the costs beyond the $3 billion state package, including $764 million from the locals, $252 million in borrowing to expand I-94 near the plant, $140 million from ratepayers for a new transmission line to the proposed plant, millions for roads and other costs that push the long-term tab for state residents past $4 billion. But the key for Walker, insiders say, is for the company to show progress on the plant and its workforce in the months ahead of the election to assure the public the project is underway. Still, Dems believe the project is going to be an albatross on Walker the farther away voters live from the planned facility. It also still remains to be seen what kind of challenge a fractured Dem field poses to Walker. The guv has run in GOP waves years in 2010 and 2014, but this could be his first election into a headwind. Dems believe President Trump will hurt Walker and Republicans up and down the ballot in 2018. But the guv’s backers believe the state GOP’s ground game in Wisconsin, Walker’s expected fundraising advantage and what they see as a weak field will combine for a third term.
8 rising, 3 mixed
Tony Evers: The state schools superintendent is a rare bright spot for progressives, easily winning a third term as the state’s top education official. He then uses that win as a springboard to the top tier of Dem guv hopefuls. In April, Evers had a couple of things going for him, insiders say. One, outrage over the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency helped progressives dust themselves off from their losses in 2016 and get motivated. Two, Evers’ challengers were badly flawed. Perhaps the most damaging hit for his opponents were revelations that Lowell Holtz, a retired superintendent, and fellow challenger John Humphries, a former DPI employee, discussing whether one could get a six-figure salary and a driver if the other won the race. Ultimately, Holtz made it through the primary, but he failed to pull conservatives into the race, and Evers won with 70 percent of the vote. That’s the biggest margin in a DPI race since 1989. By summer, Evers was thinking about a bid for guv and ultimately jumped into the field as the only candidate who had run a statewide race and won. That, plus an existing campaign structure and credibility on a key issue, help put Evers in the top tier of a crowded Dem field. Still, Republicans are hitting him hard over a Middleton teacher who was able to keep his license even after viewing porn at work, and the money Evers raised for his DPI bids is a pittance compared to what will be needed to challenge Gov. Scott Walker.
Ron Johnson: The Oshkosh Republican spent much of his first term in the U.S. Senate railing against the Affordable Care Act and the debt while looking like a bad bet for re-election. But coming off his come-from-behind win over Dem Russ Feingold, Johnson seems emboldened to be a more prominent voice in the caucus, often to the chagrin of leadership. Insiders attribute Johnson’s elevated status to several factors. One, he’s already said this will be his final term, so he doesn’t have to worry about taking stances that could hurt his standing with voters. Two, the national groups and GOP leadership largely left him on an island while he fought for re-election in 2016. It wasn’t until the closing days when they realized he had a shot to win that national money came flooding in. Johnson, insiders say, won’t forget that, and it means he’s not beholden to anyone. And three, with a 52-48 GOP majority until Dem Doug Jones, of Alabama, is sworn in, Republican leaders have a small margin of error. That means lawmakers such as Johnson can hold things up if a couple of their colleagues get on board. For example, Johnson joins three of his fellow GOP senators over the summer to object to a repeal of Obamacare without changes. He is also one of the GOP Senate voices that raises concerns about the initial tax bill. In the end, he supports both, though the health care bill fails. But his position persuades leaders to change in the tax bill how pass-through businesses — such as the one he helped found in Oshkosh — are treated. Critics denounce what they call the “Badger Bribe” and knock Johnson for saying he’d have a seat at the table for final negotiations only to be left off the conference committee. Still, Johnson in term two is a much bigger player than in his first go-round in DC.
3 rising, one falling
Foxconn: The Taiwanese manufacturer is line for more than $4 billion in taxpayer support for the sprawling complex it plans to build in Racine County. Critics question whether it will be a good deal for taxpayers. Gov. Scott Walker and his team say it will transform the state’s economy. It could be one of the issues that independent voters use in deciding whether to re-elect Walker in November. Walker and President Trump this summer heralded the company’s decision to build a $10 billion facility in Wisconsin and create up to 13,000 jobs. But then some of the sticker shock started to set in. The state negotiated a $3 billion incentive package with the company, and non-partisan legislative analysis of the details projected Wisconsin might not break even on the investment until 2042-43. Then came additional taxpayer support: the local incentive package of $764 million, $252 million the state is looking to borrow to expand I-94 near the plant, $140 million from ratepayers for a new transmission line that would service the massive facility, and other costs for infrastructure around the project. The state is even looking to accommodate Foxconn’s desire to use driverless vehicles around the plant. To critics, the state is bending over backward to please one foreign company at the expense of Wisconsin taxpayers while homegrown businesses that aren’t getting similar special treatment. To backers, the plant represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The company envisions a 22-million-square-foot factory on a 12-acre campus, has plans to start assembly work in 2018 — presumably at a leased facility — and could create a positive ripple effect through suppliers around the state. To underscore that later point, Walker has taken to calling the area “Wisconn Valley.”
3 rising, 1 mixed, 1 falling
Tammy Baldwin: The Madison lawmaker is in a league all her own when it comes to fundraising for her re-election bid, and Dems are hopeful 2018 will be a boon rather than a bloodbath thanks to President Trump’s historically bad poll numbers. Still, that doesn’t mean re-election will be a breeze for Baldwin. Election watchers say she faces a GOP turnout machine that has regularly notched wins in Wisconsin, particularly in non-presidential years, and attacks for her office’s mishandling of the scandal at the Tomah VA. Baldwin’s early fundraising clip puts her ahead of where both U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, going into their 2016 clash. She raised $7.1 million over the first nine months of 2017 and had $5.3 million in the bank. By comparison, GOP hopefuls Kevin Nicholson, a former Marine and business consultant, raises $417,112 during his first two months in the race — boosted by a $25,000 personal loan — and Leah Vukmir, a state senator from Brookfield, pulls in nearly $242,083 over the first three weeks she got into the contest. Insiders don’t expect either to catch up to Baldwin anytime soon. But thanks to their super PACs, they may not have to. Each Republican lands a wealthy backer with Illinois businessman Dick Uihlein supporting Nicholson and Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks in Vukmir’s corner. Super PACs are not the end all, be all, insiders warn, because candidates don’t control how that money is spent or the message. Still, outside groups could make things difficult for Baldwin. Just look at the $1.6 million the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce drops on Baldwin in October only to be answered by a $1 million buy from the super PAC backing Senate Dems. Baldwin regularly shows up on national lists of the top 10 Senate races to watch in 2018, though some national prognosticators give her the early edge. The question for many Wisconsin insiders is whether the environment turns out as badly for Republicans as now believed, and if Wisconsin voters will show a penchant for ticket splitting. With a splintered Dem field, Gov. Scott Walker heads into 2018 as the favorite. Some ask: Are there Baldwin-Walker voters out there?
4 rising, 6 mixed
Paul Ryan: The Janesville Republican checks off a major career goal with the GOP tax overhaul, helping boost his relationship with President Trump after a contentious 2016. Still, questions swirl in Washington, D.C., about how long he’ll stick around to enjoy those successes as the Trump’s poor poll numbers have put the GOP at risk of significant losses in 2018. Ryan has been calling for an overhaul of the tax code since he walked in the door of the House nearly two decades ago. So his backers consider the GOP tax overhaul a defining moment in his political career, even as Dems slam the deal as a sop to the wealthy, corporations and Wall Street and high property taxpayers scurry to cope with a cap on state and local tax deductions. But amid the final push for a deal, reports surface that Ryan’s time as speaker could be coming to a close. Those reports suggest Ryan is looking to serve through the 2018 elections , walk away from Congress and the demands the speaker’s job and then spend more time with his young family. Ryan tells reporters he isn’t leaving anytime soon, but he also won’t commit to seeking re-election in November. Ryan made clear ahead of becoming speaker that he didn’t want the job, but he’s managed to — for the most part — keep the caucus in line. Meanwhile, he’s been a prodigious fundraiser in an effort to keep the majority. Through the end of November, Ryan had transferred $32 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and his backers regularly touted how he was eclipsing the fundraising pace of his predecessors. Election watchers say House Republicans could use every dollar Ryan can bring in given the Trump’s lousy numbers. The party in the White House typically has a bad off-year election, and some Republicans fear Trump’s poor numbers will only make that worse. The warnings have even begun of a possible Dem wave building. Ryan’s own poll numbers have taken hits the longer he’s been speaker. Not only has his popularity dipped nationally — part of the cost of holding the speaker’s gavel, some say — polls in his southeastern Wisconsin district have shown a mixed view of Ryan. Dem ironworker Randy Bryce has caught fire as a fundraiser with donors across the country using him as a vehicle to register their discontent with Ryan and GOP policies. But even with Bryce’s haul — $1.5 million through the end of September — and a possible Dem wave, some question how serious a threat he’d be to Ryan if the speaker seeks re-election. After all, that $1.5 million is nice, but Ryan had $10.4 million in the bank at the end of September. And his district is much more Republican than when the 1st was a swing seat. Ahead of November, Ryan still has challenges ahead. They include addressing the status of immigrant “Dreamers,” extending the short-term budget deal that staved off a partial government shutdown and tackling entitlement programs — not to mention dealing with Trump-induced drama. Senate Republicans also have signaled they aren’t interested in an entitlement overhaul, with some fearing opening that door could add to the challenging environment for Republicans next fall.
Two rising, eight mixed, one falling
Randy Bryce: The iron worker from Caledonia is a fundraising dynamo for a first-time candidate. But even with a national fundraising profile, Wisconsin insiders aren’t sure how serious a threat he is to House Speaker Paul Ryan — assuming the Janesville Republican runs for re-election,Elections watchers point to some early Bryce stumbles to suggest the former legislative candidate has a long way to go until he’s a serious candidate of substance and not just hype. Still, that hype helped kick his fundraising into high gear. It began with an introductory video that described his personal struggles and challenged Ryan to switch jobs with him. He then rides the attention from that video to nearly $1.5 million in receipts through the end of September, one of the best opening fundraising sprints for any Wisconsin House candidate. While he has a primary opponent in Cathy Myers, a Janesville school board member, Dem groups and politicians have largely coalesced around Bryce. Still, things aren’t always smooth. While Bryce seems to be enjoying the attention with his fundraising trips to the coasts, Republicans knock him for paying more attention to celebrities than his possible constituents. He also apologizes for a tweet about Ivanka Trump over her husband’s possible legal troubles. “Don’t worry @jaredkushner regardless of what might go down – she’ll be okay. #MuellerTime.” Bryce tweeted that along with a picture of Ivanka Trump sitting next to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What’s more, Republicans enjoy knocking Bryce for his past financial troubles, including waiting to pay some outstanding child support until after he got into the race. Some Dems argue those financial difficulties make him seem more relatable for the average voters. Still, he’s won the support of progressives such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. There’s also the speculation about whether Ryan will seek re-election in 2018. If he drops out, Bryce would start with a significant financial advantage over the rest of the field.
3 mixed, one falling
Corrections: It has been a steady stream of bad headlines out of the state’s youth prisons, including assaults of staff, “significant unrest” and questions about how young offenders have been treated. Then there’s the story of an incident in August when four juvenile inmates climbed onto the roof of a prison dorm, throwing rocks and pieces of shingles at guards below while brandishing metal pipes. That sent the Lincoln Hill School for Boys into lockdown weeks after a federal judge ordered changes to how the state treats those held there. One of the inmates tells an officer they’re targeting staff to make a statement. The public only cares about the staff, so the inmates are going to continue assaulting them until there’s no one left to work there, the inmate says. The roof incident comes after U.S. District Judge James Peterson in Madison orders changes at how the teen inmates are treated, sparking complaints from Gov. Scott Walker and AG Brad Schimel about a judge dictating prison procedures. But Peterson knocks the use of solitary confinement at the youth prison, saying “Ted Kaczynski has less restrictive confinement than the youth at Lincoln Hills.” Other changes he orders include curtailing the use of pepper spray and restraints, a ruling sparked by an ACLU lawsuit filed on behalf of four inmates alleging their rights were violated. There’s also an ongoing federal investigation that has identified two former guards as targets of the wide ranging probe. Beyond the troubles at Lincoln Hills, questions linger over whether it will become a political issue in 2018 for Walker. The guv has refused to visit the prisons, saying he has faith in the leadership at the Department of Corrections. But Dems slam the guv, arguing it’s a failure of leadership.
3 falling; Lincoln Hills 2 falling
David Clarke: After he served as a top surrogate for Donald Trump during the 2016 election, it didn’t seem like a question of if the Milwaukee County sheriff would end up in the administration. Instead, it seemed like a matter of where and when. Instead, the job he announces he was taking in the administration doesn’t pan out, he ends up resigning his post to join a pro-Trump group, and he leaves office with amid a trail of criticism over his oversight of the jail and his frequent absences from his day job. In May, Clarke announced on a conservative talk show that he had accepted a job as an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security. But the office never confirms the offer, and in June a spokesman says Clarke has “rescinded his acceptance” of the position. The whole thing strikes insiders as odd, even as Clarke backers insist everything was lined up. National media obtain a letter the agency sent Clarke confirming him on his “tentative selection,” although his “appointment date is to be determined.” Once the administration job fades away, Clarke faces limited options back home. While a PAC forms to draft him into the U.S. Senate race, Wisconsin insiders question if he could win re-election as sheriff, let alone a statewide bid against Dem Tammy Baldwin. Ultimately, he resigns from the sheriff’s office in August and joins a pro-Trump group as he continues to serve as a surrogate for the president in conservative media.
1 rising, 1 mixed, 5 falling
Self-insurance: It was one of the core planks of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget: Move the state away from paying premiums to insurance companies to provide health insurance benefits for workers. Instead, the state would give pay employees’ health bills directly and take on the risk that costs could come in higher in any given year. But the plan immediately ran into problems in the Legislature, and the Joint Finance Committee unanimously votes to strip it from the budget before it goes to either house. To make the proposal more attractive, Walker tied the estimated $60 million in savings from his plan to funding for K-12 schools and pay raises for state employees. But lawmakers questioned the projected savings and said the move would be too risky. In addition to possibly taking a hit if health bills came in higher than expected, critics raised concerns about taking some 250,000 public employees out of the state’s insurance pools and the possibility that could drive up costs for other state residents. The Joint Finance action includes a series of directives to the Group Insurance Board to find the savings the administration had planned through the move to self-insurance. But Walker nixes those orders, writing in his veto message it is not appropriate for lawmakers to be so intimately involved in the process.
1 mixed, 3 falling