Shifting political winds at the national level are reducing the chance of a blue wave come November, at least according to GOP Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
The Juneau Republican at a WisPolitics.com luncheon Tuesday cited more favorable congressional and presidential approval ratings as reasons the forecast for the GOP Senate caucus should be read as optimistic.
“There’s probably not a blue wave coming if that holds up for the next three weeks, which I’d be shocked if it fell apart significantly in the next three weeks,” Fitzgerald said.
But the weather vane is pointing in a different direction for Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, of La Crosse. She referenced Democratic wins in the 10th and 1st Senate Districts in special elections this year combined with an enthusiastic national environment she believes will push her party toward a majority of between 17 and 19 seats.
Fitzgerald disagreed with that assessment, arguing those two wins were anomalies because of erratic special election turnout. If those two districts return to their “natural” numbers and the GOP can reclaim the 1st SD, Fitzgerald believes his party is well on its way to retaining the majority.
For Republicans, the path to victory winds through northeastern Wisconsin, the Appleton area, the southwestern corner of the state and the Milwaukee suburbs, among other places. Dems’ strategy includes keeping incumbent Sens. Janet Bewley and Caleb Frostman, as well as targeting many of the same districts Republicans are focusing on.
Fitzgerald is confident GOP Sen. Roger Roth can stave off a challenge from Dem Lee Snodgrass in the 19th SD in the Fox Valley, and that Howard Marklein can hold his own against Democrat Kriss Marion in southwestern Wisconsin’s 17th SD.
But Shilling pointed toward Roth’s failure to pass legislation addressing the so-called “dark store loophole” as a factor that keeps the race there competitive for Dems.
Fitzgerald also said former Republican Rep. Andre Jacque is in a good position to win back the 1st SD from Frostman, who in a June special election took the vacant Door County-area seat formerly held by Republican Frank Lasee.
But Shilling is confident Frostman can hold the seat, praising his likeability, business acumen and that “he has not taken his foot off the gas” since his win this summer.
Fitzgerald believes the party can also play in northwestern Wisconsin’s 25th SD, where Republican James Bolen is challenging Bewley.
“Bolen … has been probably one of the best challenger candidates I’ve ever worked with,” Fitzgerald said. He added Bewley hasn’t shown she knows how to work the district, giving Bolen a leg up in his mind.
But Shilling countered the 25th SD will lean Democratic in November following patterns seen in this year’s special elections.
Fitzgerald also said Republican Rep. Kathy Bernier has a strong hold on western Wisconsin’s 23rd SD, where she faces Dem physician Chris Kapsner. He highlighted Bernier’s name recognition in the district and her hard work there.
Shilling, however, noted the GOP’s spending in the district signifies it sees Kapsner as a threat. She noted Kapsner’s knowledge of health care, a marquee issue this year, as something that makes him competitive.
In Fitzgerald’s view, the 5th SD, which GOP U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir is vacating, is an easy win for Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga, who is facing Dem Julie Henszey. Buttressing Fitzgerald’s argument is Kooyenga’s name ID in the area coupled with Vukmir winning the seat with nearly 74 percent of the vote in 2014, though she faced one Libertarian and no Democratic challenger that year.
But Shilling claimed Kooyenga’s slew of “bad headlines” give Dems a chance. Shilling was specifically referring to Kooyenga’s stealing a political sign from the Capitol earlier this year, for which he paid $30,000 in a settlement, and allegations he was drunk on the Assembly floor during budget deliberations in 2015.
“I think character matters, and how you act when you think no one is looking, and what you do,” Shilling said.
Fitzgerald also thinks Republican Mel Pittman has a “real shot” against former Democratic Rep. Jeff Smith in the race to fill outgoing Dem Sen. Kathleen Vinehout’s western Wisconsin seat. He argued Smith has character flaws that the district will take notice of.
“Jeff’s a little wacky. He’s way out there. I think the 31st gets that. It’s going to be close,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also argued parts of Ron Kind’s 3rd Congressional District across from Minnesota could end up more Republican, mirroring trends in Wisconsin’s western neighbor.
Still, Shilling countered the seat is Smith’s to lose since it’s been in Democratic hands, though never firmly. Shilling admitted Vinehout had an “unorthodox” style of campaigning.
But she continued that Smith — from a more population-dense part of the district — will work hard to court rural voters there.
“He needed to get out there and earn that rural credibility,” Shilling said. “That’s been a Democratic seat, it’s Jeff’s to lose.”
See the WisEye video of the luncheon: