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Democrats’ plan for recruiting candidates and making gains in Wisconsin Legislature • Wisconsin Examiner

Wisconsin’s new legislative maps, drawn by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and passed by the Republican-led Legislature, are giving state legislative Democrats the chance to win additional seats and compete for majorities in the state Legislature for the first time in 14 years. 

Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) said in an interview that Assembly Democrats are focused on picking up the 15 seats necessary to achieve at least a 50-seat majority in this election cycle. Republicans currently hold a 64-35 majority in the Assembly, just two seats shy of a supermajority. 

“It’s going to be close,” Neubauer said. “We know that it is going to be a fight to win the majority this year and it is going to take an incredible amount of work on behalf of all of our incumbents and all of our candidates to flip 15 seats and to win the majority.” 

“But it is absolutely possible,” Neubauer added. 

An analysis by Marquette University Research Fellow John Johnson of Evers’ maps based on 2022 election results showed 42 Assembly districts with a double-digit Democratic lean and 4 districts with a single-digit lean.

“To win a majority in November 2024 under the Evers map, Democrats could win all of the seats which lean toward them, plus four of the 7 districts with a single-digit Republican lean,” Johnson said. He said the most likely targets among those closely divided districts are AD 61 in the southwest Milwaukee suburbs, AD 88 and 89 in the Green Bay area and either AD 85 in Wausau or AD 30 in Hudson.

Democrats’ task as they work towards flipping the Assembly starts with trying to recruit a candidate to run in every district where there isn’t an incumbent, Neubauer said. 

Assembly Democrats had been in conversations with potential candidates in the months before final maps were chosen, she added. Then, in the week after the new maps were signed, she said more than 100 people reached out about running and Democrats have continued having talks with candidates ever since. 

Conversations with those possible candidates have centered on the amount of work that goes into running, she said. 

“We want people out knocking on doors, and we need them to raise dollars to pay for a campaign that will reach as many voters as possible,” Neubauer said. “I’m looking for someone who has the time and the energy to get out and to connect one-on-one with as many people as possible. I also look for people who are rooted in their community, who have strong relationships, who have a lot of people who are encouraging them to run and want to help them.” 

The new recruits will be necessary to run in competitive seats and in other seats being vacated by incumbents this cycle. 

Rash of Democratic retirements

About a third of Assembly Democrats have announced that they won’t seek reelection this cycle. Reps. Tod Ohnstad of Kenosha, Sue Conley of Janesville, Dave Considine of Baraboo and Kristina Shelton of Green Bay have all announced their retirements from the Assembly. Other Democrats announced their intentions to run for other elected positions. Three Assembly lawmakers — Reps. Jimmy Anderson, Samba Baldeh and Melissa Ratcliff — are vying for an open seat representing the 18th Senate District. 

Neubauer said it’s always “sad to lose incumbents.” Those who are leaving, she said, “do not represent what we would consider to be close districts, however.” She also noted that incumbents in the most competitive seats are running again and “are gearing up for an important election year.” 

In terms of candidate recruitment, Neubauer said she thinks Wisconsinites want to be part of a historic moment in which Democrats have a chance to flip the Legislature and change how the state is governed. 

“It feels really different than it has in the past,” Neubauer said. “The volume of people reaching out is different than I’ve ever experienced, and the seriousness that people have about running for particularly the most competitive seats.” 

One of those candidates that reached out was Vinnie Miresse, who announced his candidacy for the 71st Assembly District representing Stevens Point in February shortly after the maps were adopted. 

Miresse, who currently serves on the Portage County Board of Supervisors, said he hadn’t ever planned on running for the state Assembly. However, he said that after learning that Rep. Katrina Shankland is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden in Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, he started considering who could run to fill her seat.

“It hadn’t immediately occurred to me that I could be the candidate,” Miresse said. “I’ve spent so much time looking for, recruiting candidates and trying to inspire people to run for office over the past decade of my life that I often forget, sometimes, we have to look within.” 

After discussions with Neubauer, his family and community members, Miresse said he thought it would be a good next step. 

“[Neubauer] was incredibly inspiring in her delivery of what she saw would be possible in the coming years for the state Assembly in the state of Wisconsin,” Miresse said. 

Miresse said that he believes that politics can be “a vehicle for improving people’s lives,” and that through his campaign he wants to “inspire optimism, create, change and deliver results to the people of the 71st.” He said some of the issues he has heard about from voters include addressing the cost of living, the need for good jobs and living wages, affordable childcare and clean water. 

Miresse said that he would like to see a Democratic majority in the Assembly, and that he hopes that comes with a “sense that we’re going to do good work.” 

Many Democratic incumbents are also looking to remain in the Legislature. 

Rep. Alex Joers (D-Middleton) announced that he would seek reelection in the 81st Assembly District rather than the 80th, which he was drawn into with Rep. Mike Bare (D-Verona).

Joers said he knew it would be a possibility that he would be paired with another Democrat under the new maps, and that it was a difficult decision. He said he thinks Democrats have “a really good shot, a fair shot, at taking the majority this upcoming legislative session,” and that the potential to get more done for Wisconsinites played a role in his decision to run for reelection. 

He noted that he was able to lead on some legislation this session that became law, including the Nutrition Incentive Program, which will provide dollars to families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so they can purchase fruits and vegetables.

“Just knowing that we would have an opportunity to be in a more balanced Legislature next time around really made me more excited than ever to know that if I was to run again and get reelected, that I would have a better opportunity to deliver more results to my constituents,” Joers said.

He hopes other candidates across the state running in competitive districts could help achieve policy initiatives including Medicaid expansion and child care investments. 

“There are people really from all walks of life that are announcing for these very competitive seats and new seats, and that’s just something that I think is going to really drive our message home, that we’re going to have a caucus, hopefully, that’s in the majority that looks like Wisconsin and is responsive to what Wisconsinites are asking us to do in the Legislature,” Joers said.

Democrats seek to flip Senate in 2026

The opportunity for Democrats to flip the Senate looks slightly different with only half of the seats up for reelection this cycle.

Senate Minority Leader Dianne Hesselbein, who noted that she was hoping all of the seats would be up for reelection, said that difference means Democrats probably won’t be able to flip the Senate until next cycle, but they’ll be working towards that goal. 

“It’s going to take two races, just because we’re not all up,” Hesselbein said. “We need to win the races this year and then, in two years, win in those races. It’s all doable and the numbers are with us. That’s why we have great excitement. We’re super excited about fair maps.” 

Johnson, the Marquette University research fellow, said in his analysis that he saw “essentially no chance of Democrats winning a majority this November.” But he said that he could see three pickup opportunities in Senate District 14, which is Northwest of Madison, SD 18, which represents Fox Valley and SD 30, which represents Green Bay. 

“Any one of these pickups would end the GOP supermajority in the upper chamber,” Johnson said. “Winning all of them will put the senate majority very much in play during the 2026 cycle.” 

Hesselbein said that it would be a goal for Democrats to have a candidate run for every Senate seat, but that they are looking to be strategic. 

“There are some of these districts that are very Republican, right? So we’re kind of waiting to see what that looks like,” Hesselbein noted. “I don’t think the Republican party is trying to find Republicans to run in all of the Senate districts either. I think you just look to see because you only have so many finite resources, so you really need to spend carefully and be strategic with it.” 

Hesselbein said Senate Democrats have been fielding calls from people excited to run under new maps, and that they keep a map on the wall with pins to keep track of where potential candidates live.

“People would be calling us and we, literally, would say to them, where do you live?” Hesselbein said. “They’d be like, I live in Green Bay. No. What is your address?” 

Once the maps were set, Hesselbein said they were following up with candidates who expressed interest. 

One of those people was Jaime Wall, a business consultant who is running for the 30th Senate District. Two Republicans, Sen. Eric Wimberger and Sen. Rob Cowles, were drawn into that district, but both have said they plan to move to run in the 2nd Senate District

Part of Senate Democrats’ strategy is to avoid competitive primaries in the competitive districts. 

Hesselbein noted that Wall is the only Democratic candidate in the 30th currently, and that no one has expressed interest besides him. She said it’s beneficial for Democrats to have a clear candidate to get behind. 

“For us, if we have one Democratic candidate running, they can tell their story, knock on doors the entire time and it’s clear who that the Democratic nominee would be going against that Republican candidate and what the two of them stand for,” Hesselbein said. She added that a Democratic candidate is gearing up to announce a challenge against Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) in the 14th Senate District.

Hesselbein said that having closer margins in the next legislative session would be “huge.” She said that the closer margins will help Democrats push for policies that will help improve people’s lives, including Medicaid expansion, investing in public K-12 education and public higher education. 

Right now, Republicans in the Senate have a 22-10 supermajority. 

“There will be a lot more conversations happening,” Hesselbein said. “It won’t just be the Republicans saying ‘Well we have the votes to pass this.’ They’re going to need Democratic votes to do things and I think that’s where it’s going to be helpful.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F04%2F04%2Fdemocrats-plan-for-recruiting-candidates-and-making-gains-in-wisconsin-legislature%2F by Baylor Spears

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