Monday, September 22, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 54.0° F  
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Madland: Dale Schultz's retirement should focus Dems on recapturing the Wisconsin Senate
Winning Schultz's district won't be easy for a Democratic candidate.
Winning Schultz's district won't be easy for a Democratic candidate.
Credit:Friends and Neighbors of Dale Schultz

The announcement of (relatively) moderate Republican Senator Dale Schultz's retirement should kick the Democratic Party of Wisconsin into high gear if it wants any chance of recapturing the state senate. To many, it looks like the one-time Senate Majority Leader is being forced out by the Republican establishment as punishment for his positions on issues like Act 10 and the Gogebic Taconite mining bill.

While most eyes will be on the governor's race, the Senate can't be ignored. As pointed out by Bruce Murphy in his excellent Isthmus op-ed noting Scott Walker's vulnerabilities, the governor has a very good shot at being reelected. The economy is going to be the number one issue, and Walker is going to take credit for every statistic showing improvement, even if the majority of economic growth in Wisconsin simply comes from riding the wave of the national recovery.

No matter what your opinions are of the former Trek executive, you can agree that it isn’t wise for the Wisconsin Dems to put all of their eggs in the Mary Burke basket.

If defeating Walker is Plan A, the Dems aiming for a majority in the Senate is a solid Plan B. (Plan B to make sure women can still get Plan B, that is.) As seen at the national level, controlling one chamber of the Legislature can be really effective at slowing down an executive's agenda.

This plan already worked once. While the 2012 recall elections didn’t manage to unseat Walker, they did let Democrats recapture the Senate for a few months. And though the November 2012 elections (complete with their brand-new gerrymandered maps) quickly undid that, a 2014 victory for Dems in state Senate races could slow the Republican agenda for two years.

Just imagine some of the legislation Walker might try to pass in 2015 to please the ultra conservatives who will dominate the 2016 Republican presidential primary electorate.

Winning Schultz's district won't be easy for a Democratic candidate. In the fall 2012 election, all three of the Assembly districts (49-51) that make up the larger Senate district went for Republicans. However, all three races were relatively close. If you add up the election results for the Assembly races, Republicans got 53% of the vote while Democrats got 47%.

However, smart ads could play up the message that the popular Schultz was forced out by partisan extremists who care more about special interests than constituents. Even if the conservative-leaning independents who would respond to that message only make up 3-4% of the electorate, that could still be enough to swing the outcome.

Schultz himself doesn't seem like he is going to contest that 'forced out' message as he's refusing to endorse Marklein in the general election.

There are significant challenges ahead for Wisconsin Democrats. Some had hoped Schultz would run as an independent, allowing the Democrat to win with a simple plurality. That's no longer possible. The current Democratic candidate for the race isn't exactly drawing buzz around his name, meanwhile. None of the articles about Schultz's retirement that I saw even mentioned him. It took me several minutes of Googling to finally remember his name: Ernie Wittwer. With so few competitive races, the Democrats either need to get behind this guy or find someone new who will stand a chance.

But even if Wittwer takes Schultz's vacant seat, the Dems would still need to hold on to all of their incumbents and win another Senate seat on top of that. The next most vulnerable Republican Senator appears to be Mike Ellis, and he won't go down without a fight.

Still, it is a worthy fight for the Democrats. A Democratic majority in the Senate would moderate the one-party stranglehold the Republicans have. The GOP would still be setting the agenda, but the most extreme bills would be far less likely to pass -- exactly the sort of governance that's been provided by Dale Schultz.

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