Political Stock Report
–A collection of insider opinion–
(Feb. 15 – 21, 2020)
Tom Tiffany: The GOP state senator has long had his eye on a run for the 7th CD. The foundation he laid while waiting his turn paid off, insiders say. Tiffany beats newcomer Jason Church by nearly 15 points in the GOP primary for the northern Wisconsin seat, giving him the inside track to succeed former Republican Congressman Sean Duffy and become the newest member of the state’s House delegation. Tricia Zunker, a Wausau School Board member and justice on the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court, had an even more impressive win in the Dem primary, besting Lawrence Dale by 77 points. But the district is prime Trump country, insiders note. In looking at his primary win, insiders credit Tiffany for taking more of a boots-on-the-ground approach while newcomer Church had more of an outsider over-the-air strategy. Some of it is a reflection of their backgrounds and their supporters, insiders note. The district has no major media market or population center. So Tiffany broke up the massive district like he was running several state Senate races, helping reach voters more directly. He got valuable help from backers such as Americans for Prosperity Action doing doors, canvassing and placing robocalls. Church, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and a retired Army captain, also got help with robocalls. But the outside groups backing him were focused more on ads and mail. Church also attracted some big-name GOP supporters such as U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and Joni Ernst, of Iowa, both fellow veterans. But they’re not the kind of household names that drive voters in the northern Wisconsin district. Still, insiders were impressed with the money he raised and the outside help he attracted as a first-time candidate. Church’s compelling story — a double amputee injured in Afghanistan — and his outsider message resonate with some Republicans in the current political environment. He just lacked the infrastructure that Tiffany had to turn out voters, they add. Church’s performance has some Republicans wondering what’s next for him — and bemoaning that he didn’t run in the 3rd CD against longtime Dem Rep. Ron Kind after he spent his college days at UW-La Crosse. Win a seat in the Legislature, some suggest, and he could be primed for another congressional bid, especially after new lines are drawn following the next Census. But Church tells his election night party he has no plans to run for office again — period. He’s got time to change his mind, some say, but Church appears to have his attention focused elsewhere for now. Looking ahead to the May 12 special, Republicans can’t let down their guard considering it’s a rare late spring election. Dems’ best hope, some say, may be for a supercharged base overcoming the district’s tendencies. Still, Republicans should’ve learned their lesson on that from losing the 10th SD in a January 2018 special election despite Trump having won it less than two years earlier by 17 points, say insiders who believe Tiffany is the heavy favorite to win the seat.
Chris Larson and David Crowley: The next Milwaukee County exec will come from the state Legislature. And insiders expect the outgoing exec to cut a big check to make sure it’s not Larson. The state senator challenged Chris Abele in 2016, besting him in the spring primary before losing by 11 points in the general election. Once Abele announced he wouldn’t seek another term this spring, Larson became one of the immediate frontrunners thanks to his progressive ties and his name ID from his last bid. Crowley, meanwhile, got a boost after Bryan Kennedy, the Greendale mayor, and Jim Sullivan, a former state senator and member of Abele’s administration, were booted from the ballot. Abele was starting to line up his resources behind Sullivan before he was pulled from the ballot thanks to challenges from fellow candidate Theo Lipscomb, the County Board chair. Abele quickly switched to Crowley, eventually spending $240,000 on mail and digital ads to boost his campaign. If he’ll write a check like that to ensure Crowley will get through a primary, imagine how much he’ll drop to get him elected, some say. Still, some note that Abele’s free spending in races hasn’t always been successful, and Larson launches a pre-emptive attack on the outside money by saying on election night that voters are tired of the wealthy trying to buy races. Insiders note that Larson got a smaller share of the vote in the four-way primary than he did in either the primary or general in 2016. It is a reflection, some add, of it not being a 1-on-1 race with Abele and those unhappy with the county exec having other options. Still, insiders also see a path for Larson. He’s got connections with progressive groups who will work to turn out the vote for him. He also might benefit from a hyped Dem turnout if the presidential campaign is still going strong come April. With Bernie Sanders picking up momentum, some note those turning out to “Feel the Bern” for the Vermont senator are more likely to be Larson supporters than backers of Crowley. Still, Crowley has his own path, and he alludes to it after finishing a surprisingly strong second with 34 percent to Larson’s 37. Crowley says he will look to build bridges with his campaign, a sign to some that he can appeal to Republicans and moderates who aren’t exactly thrilled with Larson’s brand of progressive politics. That’s part of what helped Abele cruise to a win in 2016 with 56 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Crowley can also appeal to liberal voters with his own record in the state Legislature. Insiders also say he might be helped by a slate of African-American candidates in the spring election — including Sen. Lena Taylor, running for mayor of Milwaukee, Rep. Jason Fields, running for Milwaukee City Comptroller — that could help boost black voter turnout.
F-35s: The state’s capital city remains a top pick for the new fighter jets despite some neighborhood opposition over fears they’ll be much louder — and more disruptive — than the Air National Guard F-16s now stationed at Truax Field. Madison was already one of the preferred sites to host the planes even before the final environmental impact statement was released. The report finds there would be a greater environmental impact on Madison than three of the other four sites under consideration. That includes exposing more than 1,000 households to average daily noise levels considered incompatible — but not uninhabitable — for residential use. Critics of landing the planes in Madison continue to hammer on the potential impact, particularly to low-income and minority residents. But the city continues to be one of the preferred sites, making it likely that the aging fleet of F-16s now at Truax will eventually be swapped out for the F-35s.
Body cam legislation: Lawmakers send Gov. Tony Evers a proposal to implement new guidelines for police body camera footage after a pair of bills seeking to do the same thing failed to gain traction in 2018. Last session, a Dem-backed bill didn’t get a public hearing in either chamber while a measure from Republicans cleared the Assembly. But the bill stalled in the Senate over concerns from open records advocates, who highlighted a provision requiring anyone captured in body cam footage in certain locations to sign off on the video’s public release, among other things. Advocates argued the provision piled work onto police officers and had the potential to keep footage away from the public eye. After neither measure gained traction, a Leg Council Study Committee — chaired by the authors of the competing legislation and stocked with law enforcement officials, media members and legal experts — drafts a bill addressing shortcomings. The new measure regulates policies, training, and use of body cams and tackles the retention and release of footage, an area that proved to be a sticking point last time around. It would allow records custodians to balance privacy concerns against the public’s right to view records and use of redaction technology to protect victims, children and those with a reasonable expectation of privacy. The bill sails through committee in both chambers, picking up support from the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association along the way, before clearing both the Senate and Assembly.
Tom Barrett: The Milwaukee Dem is in a strong position to win a fifth term as Milwaukee’s mayor with a solid fundraising advantage over his challenger and a track record of rolling up big margins in his April elections. Still, for a four-term mayor with a ton more cash than either state Sen. Lena Taylor — who made it through the primary — or Ald. Tony Zielinski — who didn’t — his 50 percent share of the vote in the three-way race isn’t dominant. Barrett backers argue they never expected the mayor to run away with the primary. After all, he got less than 45 percent of the vote four years ago in a four-way primary. For some it highlights Barrett’s weaknesses. He’s sometimes viewed as a really nice guy who doesn’t have a grand vision for the city. And he has his critics in the African American community, as well as those who place a priority on law-and-order issues. But in looking at Taylor, who’s been in the state Legislature since 2003, insiders doubt she has a path to take advantage of those opportunities. For one, she only had $7,287 in the bank heading into the primary. Two, insiders aren’t expecting an outside group to swoop in and offset the $896,319 Barrett had in the bank at the end of the last reporting period. Taylor’s best hopes, some argue, are for a significant uptick in African American turnout coupled with an ability to build a coalition with anti-Barrett forces. On the first point, along with Taylor running for mayor, state Rep. David Crowley is seeking the county exec’s office, Rep. Jason Fields is running for city comptroller and Tearman Spencer placed first in his three-way primary, besting incumbent City Attorney Grant Langley by more than 4,000 votes. All four African American candidates could help drive black turnout in April. Still, others point out that Taylor comes with her own baggage, including being tossed from the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee following accusations she directed a racial epithet at a bank teller. Two, Ald. Bob Donovan was an outspoken critic of the mayor’s push for Milwaukee’s streetcar and won the backing of police and fire unions — and still lost 70 percent to 30 percent four years ago. Some insiders have a hard time seeing those conservatives and public safety voters coalescing around her.
Tax talk: Republicans have now passed their combination tax cut, business property tax reduction and debt reduction plan, putting it in the hands of Gov. Tony Evers. They even picked up two Dem votes in the Assembly along the way. But the going bet among insiders is that Evers vetoes the plan after Republicans declined to even bother taking up his call to put a piece of the expected $450 million surplus into an education plan that would’ve cut property taxes. Going into the floor votes, insiders were watching to see if they would be straight party-line affairs or if some vulnerable Dems would break away. After railing against Republican efforts to rework his budget — and every Dem member voting again the tax cut and education funding included in the final document GOP lawmakers sent back to him — Evers signed the budget after a little work with his veto pen. That prompted some insiders to note the guv had put vulnerable Dems at risk. After all, every time he now touts the tax cut he signed and the education funding boost he approved, Dems have to cheer — even though they supported neither. They say the guv simply couldn’t do that to them again if all the Dems expected to face tough races this fall voted against the GOP package only to see Evers sign it. In the end, Republicans attract two Dem votes — Reps. Steve Doyle, of Onalaska, and Nick Milroy, of South Range. Doyle tells WisPolitics.com he’s hoping if the guv vetoes the plan that talks will continue on a compromise, and he wants to be part of those talks. Milroy, meanwhile, says he always prefers to invest a surplus or return it to taxpayers, and after Republicans rejected Dem efforts to pass the guv’s plan, this was the only option. Insiders debate the wisdom of both votes. Republicans are going to rip Dems anyway on taxes considering they voted against a standalone bill that Evers vetoed before the budget and then cast “no” votes on the budget with the plan that the guv signed. Voting for this isn’t going to prevent Republicans from going after them on that issue, some say. But a vote for the GOP tax cut plan also helps these two Dems carve out a unique brand when you’re in a seat that could go for Republicans at the top of the ticket in the presidential race this fall, some counter. Meanwhile, targeted Assembly Dems such as Beth Meyers, of Bayfield, and Robyn Vining, of Wauwatosa, vote against the GOP plan. Some believe their messaging will be simple: given the choice between putting money into schools or signing off on a plan that included a tax break for businesses, they went where their constituents wanted them to go. Just look at the number of districts going to referendum in recent years, choosing to raise their own property taxes, some argue. Still, it’d be helpful if they got some backup from the guv, some say. While there may be some political gnashing of teeth over a veto, it also makes some financial sense for the guv. Insiders note if the Capitol can’t agree on a plan for that money, it would just carry over to the 2021-23 budget, giving Evers a chance to pump it into his education proposals in the next cycle.
DNC bar time: The sausage-making that occurs at the end of every legislative session was on full display as the Assembly revised legislation to extend bar time during the Democratic National Convention. But insiders say it remains an open question if the changes are enough to win over skeptical Senate Republicans. The first version of the bill was a hodgepodge of alcohol-related provisions, from implementing regulations for wedding barns to addressing the hours that wineries could stay open. It then morphed into an idea to allow bars statewide to stay open to 4 p.m. during the convention, not just those in southeastern Wisconsin, where delegates and activists are expected to stay for the week. But with the session winding down, Senate Republicans rejected a Dem effort to amend an existing bill to add the provisions of the Assembly bill: allowing municipalities to permit or deny a restaurant or bar’s request to stay open until 4 a.m. from July 13 to July 17; authorizing the Department of Revenue to issue retail liquor licenses to racetrack grounds; and closing a loophole where a brewery could sell beer at all hours without being subject to liquor license limitations. In the process, Republicans raised several objections, including a concern that it would lead to a spike in drunken driving that week. Against that backdrop, sponsors went to work to address those concerns. Their answer resulted in the amendment the Assembly approved that would scale back the proposal to 14 counties as originally envisioned, ditch the provision on brewery hours and boost the surcharge on drunken driving arrests to put in a fund at DOT that helps pay for the Safe Ride program offered by the Tavern League. The revised bill passes 84-13 with a mix of Dem and GOP lawmakers opposed to the idea. Now it’s up to the Senate. Some insiders see a mix of concerns from loosening Wisconsin’s already lax alcohol laws to GOP senators simply not feeling any urgency to help Dems throw a better party. Some note southeastern Wisconsin members are also hearing from some on conservative talk radio amid concerns about sending a mixed message after putting in effort this session to crack down on drunken driving. But backers continue to argue this is more than just about giving Dem activists longer to imbibe. The convention is Milwaukee’s opportunity to prove it belongs on the same level as larger cities in its ability to pull off an event of this size. It may be the Dems now, some say, but if this goes well, Republicans could be the next ones to bring their national convention to Milwaukee. Two, Ohio did this for Cleveland and Pennsylvania for Philadelphia ahead of the 2016 conventions. If Wisconsin can’t do the same, it makes the state look bad — and Republicans petty. Some Republicans shrug off the concerns, and that has insiders watching how this plays out in the Senate. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has long had a rule of thumb that nothing gets to the floor unless it has the minimum 17 votes needed for passage from his caucus alone. Among other things, it has helped him keep the disparate wings of his team on the same page at times. But Fitzgerald is currently the heavy favorite to win the 5th CD this fall, which would mean he’d be out the door in about 11 months. That means he’d only have one last day on the floor in March to worry about his GOP members’ feelings. Will Fitzgerald stick to his rule, or just push this bill through with a mix of Dems and Republicans to finally be done with the issue?
Staush Gruszynski: When news broke a sexual harassment complaint had been substantiated against the freshman Dem rep, insiders had the sense he was a dead man walking. In the #MeToo era, there was simply no way, they argued, he could survive a primary challenge. But as the weeks passed — and one of his female Dem colleagues gave him cover by saying he deserves a second chance — some observers sense he actually may start out as the favorite in his upcoming primary. School Board member Kristina Shelton, program director for the YMCA of Greater Green Bay, announces she will challenge Gruszynski in the upcoming primary after he was forced out of the Dem caucus over the incident. She notes party leaders asked Gruszynski to resign and argued the district needs someone new in the post to have effective leadership. Gruszynski won the Green Bay seat without an opponent in the primary or general almost two years ago, jumping into the race for the vacant seat after serving on the Brown County Board and working as the state political director with Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. Both created political connections that helped him line up support among various groups. Now, insiders will be watching to see whether those same supporters will stick with him or back Shelton. Gruszynski will have at least one ally in outgoing state Rep. Amanda Stuck, an Appleton Dem who’s running for the 8th CD this fall. Stuck, who was sexually assaulted twice, is scheduled to attend Gruszynski’s campaign kick off next month and says he deserves a second chance. Some also see her downplaying what Gruszynski did in a Madison bar, saying it’s not the same as assault. Some of her female colleagues in the caucus don’t share that sentiment and are already making plans to spend part of their time leading up to the August primary in the 90th AD helping out Shelton. But to some insiders, that may illustrate some of the dynamic that might play in Gruszynski’s favor: the people most outraged by what he did are in Madison. But how does that translate to his constituents in Green Bay? The district has a strong Dem tilt with Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump by more than 13 points four years ago. Still, some insiders wonder how Gruszynski’s baggage would play if he got through the primary. After all, Capitol vets still remember how former Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan lost a heavily Dem seat in Janesville over a combination of factors, including his relationship with a lobbyist. With Dems just trying to prevent a GOP supermajority after this fall, they don’t need another seat to worry about. The Senate seat that includes the 90th AD is also a top priority this fall especially with longtime Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, retiring. How does a Gruszynski candidacy impact that race if he’s on the ballot come November? For now, insiders will watch to see if Gruszynski’s past donors and supporters stick with him to get a better feel for his chances in the primary.
Ed Fallone: Wisconsin voters simply like candidates with judicial experience when voting for the state Supreme Court, insiders say. And being a Marquette University Law professor just doesn’t stack up against a circuit court judge. Especially when you’re not raising enough money to effectively communicate your message, insider say. Fallone made his first bid for the state Supreme Court in 2013, stepping up to run against conservative Justice Pat Roggensack when no one else in the progressive legal community was willing to jump in. That earned him some goodwill, but that only goes so far, insiders note, and he finishes a distant third in this year’s primary. Justice Daniel Kelly had conservatives united behind him going into the primary with Fallone and Dane County Judge Jill Karofsky duking it out for the liberal vote. Insiders credit Fallone for his work on the campaign trail. But that didn’t turn into dollars, and that left him unable to get up on the air while Karofsky and Kelly could. That and his lack of judicial experience are significant roles in Fallone finishing with 12.7 percent and Karofsky at 37.2 percent. Some Republicans praise Kelly’s performance as the incumbent eclipses the 50 percent mark. But the Scott Walker appointee does so barely at 50.14 percent. In a typical spring election, hitting that mark as the incumbent with a significant money advantage would be enough to drive a message that you were in the driver’s seat heading into April. But this spring will be anything but normal, insiders note. The Dem presidential primary is showing no signs of fading, and that means the April electorate will look nothing like the February primary. Contested primaries for Milwaukee mayor and county exec helped drive turnout in one of the state’s most Dem counties. Meanwhile, the GOP primary for the 7th CD helped boost turnout across northern Wisconsin. Combined, it helped push turnout in the February primary to about 15.6 percent, up from 12 percent in 2018, the last time there was a three-way primary for Supreme Court. Insiders note Milwaukee will still have potentially interesting races for mayor and county exec come April, but the special election to fill the heavily GOP 7th CD now isn’t until May. Donald Trump will be on the April ballot, albeit without any primary opponents. That might be enough to get some Republicans to the polls who have been itching to show their support for the president after the failed attempt to remove him from office. But that’s not likely to match the intensity of a multi-candidate Dem primary, some note. What’s more, had Kelly hit the mid-50s for his margin rather than just eclipsing 50 percent, it would’ve suggested he had some crossover appeal that would encourage outside groups to open their wallets wider to help Kelly. Insiders say there’s still a path for him to win a full 10-year term. But the makeup of that April electorate looms large.
Livestock siting changes: It’s a regular occurrence at the end of each legislative session. A complex bill introduced late in the session gets a shot of momentum as various groups come together trying to reach a compromise. But it falls apart in dramatic fashion as push comes to shove. This time, it’s legislation to overhaul rules for siting and expanding large livestock operations. The issue was one of several that helped lead to the downfall of former DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff as some GOP senators heard from ag groups unhappy with the agency’s efforts to rewrite the rules. The bill from lead authors Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, was on the Senate calendar. But Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, pulled it, saying he doesn’t believe it has the support to pass, citing unified Dem opposition and concerns within his own caucus. Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, credited ag groups that wanted more regulatory certainty in the state, but says his chamber wouldn’t take up the bill, either, because the proposal needs additional work before it’s ready for a floor vote. Along with overhauling the permitting process for large livestock operations, the bill sought to create the Livestock Facility Technical Review Board under DATCP. The nine-member board would include one appointee each from names submitted by the Wisconsin Towns Association, the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Land and Water Conservation Association and by statewide environmental groups, along with five members whose names were picked by ag groups. Going forward, DATCP could promulgate rules for siting and expanding livestock facilities only if two-thirds of the board’s members approve. Marklein said in a statement a stakeholder requested a change that would have impacted local control, but he wasn’t willing to “create an imbalance in this legislation.” Insiders note it’s a sign of the high stakes that come with complex legislation in the final days of the session.