Steven Walters: Half of voters for Assembly seats get few choices in fall election

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Steven Walters
Sunday, June 8, 2014

All 99 state Assembly seats will be up for election Nov. 4. But voters in more than 50 districts won’t have much of a choice because they will either have to vote for an incumbent, for the winner of the August primary, or for a third-party candidate.

The winners of at least 34 of those Assembly seats were decided last week, for example, before any voter marked a ballot.

Although the lineup could change next week, when the Government Accountability Board (GAB) certifies candidates for the Aug. 12 primary and the Nov. 4 general elections, preliminary totals show:

-- More than 20 incumbent Assembly Republicans, and 14 incumbent Democrats, will not be challenged Nov. 4. Several Democrats in the Milwaukee and Madison areas will not face GOP opponents; many suburban Republicans will be unopposed.

-- Five other Assembly incumbents will not have major-party opponents Nov. 4. Instead, they will face little-known independent, Libertarian, Green or other third-party challengers.

-- If no third-party candidate wins Nov. 4, Aug. 12 primaries will decide 12 other Assembly races.

There is more competition for 14 of the 17 state Senate seats that will be voted on Nov. 4. But two Senate Democrats—Jon Erpenbach of Waunakee and Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee—will go unchallenged for new four-year terms. And Republican Sen. Lea Vukmir of Wauwatosa faces only a Libertarian Party opponent.

But Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause of Wisconsin, said only a few of the potential Republican-versus-Democrat Assembly elections Nov. 4 will be competitive.

“As a result of the 2011 redistricting, there were only 14 of 99 Assembly seats that were ‘competitive,’” Heck added. He defined “competitive” as an election decided by 10 points—55 percent to 45 percent, for example—or less.

Using 2010 census data, Republicans redrew U.S. House and legislative districts. Although the new maps were challenged in court, federal judges only tweaked two Assembly district boundaries in Milwaukee.

“The way the districts are configured means that one of the two (major) party candidates will really not be competitive,” Heck added. “The voters may have a ‘choice,’ but the outcome has already been predetermined because of ‘gerrymandering.’”

Heck, and even some Democrats, predict the 99-member Assembly will stay in Republican control for the 2015-16 session.

“Those seats that are currently Republican will likely remain so for the most part, and those that are Democratic will as well,” Heck explained. “There will be a few changes because some of those 14 competitive seats from 2012 will be competitive again. But not many more than that because the map is rigged.”

Carolyn Castore of the Milwaukee County League of Women Voters said the number of safe legislative seats “appears to be at an all-time high.”

“The effort and money needed to run even a barebones race may not be worth it, if a potential candidate knows they will likely lose by a large margin,” Castore said. “Due to the power of incumbency, open seats present far more attractive targets.”

The GAB reported that 317 candidates filed nomination papers for the 99 Assembly seats—a 16 percent decrease from four years ago. Still, open Republican seats attracted up to six candidates and open seats traditionally Democratic up to four hopefuls.

Other observations from GAB’s list of candidates who filed nomination papers for the Nov. 4 election:

-- Biggest surprise: Former Sen. Gary R. George, a convicted felon and once a Capitol power broker, has reappeared. He filed papers to challenge fellow Milwaukee Democrat and 4th District Congresswoman Gwen Moore in the August primary. George and Moore served together in the Senate. George co-chaired the Legislature’s budget committee for years, often dictating what passed. Milwaukee voters recalled him in 2003, and federal prosecutors convicted him in a kickback scheme.

Party leaders said George kept his new political goal a secret.

-- Biggest grudge—or cage—rematch: In Assembly District 93, former Democratic Rep. Jeff Smith of Eau Claire is challenging Eleva Republican Rep. Warren Petryk, who beat him by 498 votes two years ago.

-- First-termers unchallenged: 15 first-term Assembly members won’t have opponents this year. This suggests that an old political axiom—first-term candidates are the most vulnerable—is no longer true. Not this year, at least.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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