Wisconsin special elections could build red or blue momentum

Republicans hold a firm stake in both legislative chambers, and the winners will likely vote on nothing, but outside groups have been pouring money into Wisconsin's special elections, which are largely symbolic races to demonstrate party power ahead of the midterms. 

Morry Gash/AP/File
Wisconsin assembly candidate Ann Groves Lloyd speaks to a group of voters at the Columbus Country Democratic Party in Portage, Wis., on April 14, 2018. Ms. Lloyd will face off against Republican Jon Plumer in south central Wisconsin's 42nd Assembly District's special election this week.

The winners of Wisconsin's special legislative elections this week may never see a hearing or floor session in Madison, Wis. But the money and effort being spent to capture the two open seats underscore how important they've become in shaping perceptions of party strength heading to November.

Democrats are counting on victories to build on two big wins earlier this year and reinforce a "blue wave" looming for this fall's elections. Republicans would love to grab the seats as evidence momentum is shifting.

"I don't care if it's an anti-Trump sentiment or if it's an anti-Republican sentiment, or if it's just dissatisfaction with a party that's been in control for eight years," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said. "We need to capitalize on it."

The seats opened up when Gov. Scott Walker appointed the Republican incumbents to his administration. Governor Walker called special elections to fill the spots only after a judge ordered him to schedule them, leading Democrats to charge that the governor fears the GOP will lose the seats.

Democrat Ann Groves Lloyd meets Republican Jon Plumer in south-central Wisconsin's 42nd Assembly District. Meanwhile, Democrat Caleb Frostman faces Republican state Rep. Andre Jacque in northeastern Wisconsin's 1st Senate District.

Both districts have trended Republican over the past 20 years. But Democrats already won a special election for a Senate seat in a conservative western district this year and saw a liberal candidate easily beat a conservative in a nonpartisan Supreme Court race. With 42 legislative seats nationwide flipping to Democrats since President Trump took office, outside groups are spending heavily on the races.

The elections can't change the balance of power in either chamber. Republicans hold a 63 to 35 majority in the Assembly and an 18 to 14 advantage in the Senate. The winners probably won't vote on anything – the Legislature isn't expected to return to Madison until its next two-year session begins in January – before they have to run again in November.

The 42nd Assembly District is rural and has been in Republican hands for most of the last 20-plus years. Democrats broke that grip in 2008, when Fred Clark rode a Democratic wave into office, but Republicans retook it in 2012 after redrawn district boundaries put Mr. Clark in a different district.

Ms. Lloyd retired from her job as a University of Wisconsin-Madison student adviser on June 1. She has portrayed herself in an ad as a farmer, saying she grew up on her family's Columbia County farm. Republicans say the ad is misleading since her family now rents out the land.

Mr. Plumer, a karate school owner, had to explain last week his 1997 citation for disorderly conduct stemming from a family dispute. His then-teenage daughter accused him of pushing her out of the house and pushing her mother down during an argument. Plumer denied pushing either of them, and his daughter said last week she lied about the incident.

Lloyd has outraised Plumer, $302,157 to $187,690.

The 1st Senate District stretches from Wisconsin's Fox Cities to the tip of the Door Peninsula and has trended solidly red since at least 1995.

Representative Jacque is one of the most conservative members of the state Assembly. A group of powerful Assembly Republicans endorsed his primary opponent, but coalesced around Jacque after he won the contest.

Mr. Frostman quit his job as Door County Economic Development Corporation executive director to campaign full-time. He said in an interview he feels like the underdog, even though his campaign raised $188,660 this year compared with Jacque's $79,000.

Outside groups are pouring money into the Senate race. According to government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters' political action committee is shelling out about $172,900 on staff and ads to support Frostman. Former US Attorney General Eric Holder's group, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, is spending $35,000 on brochures and staff to help him as well.

The Wisconsin Alliance for Reform has spent $160,000 to produce and air television ads supporting Jacque.

Outside groups have spent more than $110,000 in the 42nd. For Our Future is spending about $16,700 on staff and brochures to support Lloyd and Holder's group is spending another $15,000 on online advertising for her. The Wisconsin Realtors Political Fund is spending about $8,300 on ads and calls to support Plumer. The Jobs First Coalition has spent an estimated $70,000 to produce and air radio ads supporting Plumer.

All four candidates have registered to run again in November.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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