Herb Kohl, the senior Senator from Wisconsin (and my former employer*), has announced that he will not be seeking re-election in 2012. Senator Kohl has, for as long as I can remember, been content to quietly pursue his legislative priorities while letting Feingold take the lion’s share of the Wisconsin Senator media coverage. However, this is not to say that Kohl is unpopular: he has won by increasingly large margins in every election since his first in 1988.
The question becomes, who will replace him? With the liberal bastions of Madison and Milwaukee, and the conservative nature of the rest of the state, Wisconsin elections are always a toss-up. In the most recent Senate election, Republican Ron Johnson ousted incumbent Russ Feingold (much to my chagrin), ending 18 years of two Democratic Senators. Kohl’s seat has been occupied by a Democrat since 1957 (though only by two men, William Proxmire from ’57 to his retirement in ’89 and Kohl from ’89 to current), while Feingold’s seat has alternated between Republicans and Democrats (not necessarily by term, but without any retirements) since 1927. If a Republican wins the 2012 election, it will be the first time since Proxmire’s election in 1957 that Republicans have controlled both Senate seats in Wisconsin.
The current short-list of probable contenders that I’ve heard about (not exhaustive):
- Former Governor Tommy Thompson (R): Thompson served as the Governor of Wisconsin from 1987 to 2001, when he was appointed by Pres. Bush (II) to head the Department of Health and Human Services. His appointment to the HHS post was driven by Wisconsin Works, Thompson’s welfare reform effort in Wisconsin that “did away with the welfare department and turned it into a jobs department.” Thompson explored a Presidential run for the ’08 election, dropping out in August 2007 after a poor performance in an early Iowa straw poll. He discussed runs for Governor and Senator in 2010, but did not actually seek either of those offices.With the announcement of Kohl’s retirement and discussion of Thompson as a potential replacement, he has begun to take some heat for his support of the Affordable Care Act. But he has a history of high approval ratings in Wisconsin: when he left office to take the HHS post, his approval was at 70%. In 2010, when he was weighing a run against Russ Feingold, polls showed him leading Feingold before he dropped out of the race.
- State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen (R)
- Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R)I don’t know too much about either of these candidates, other than that they’ve been mentioned by the Wisconsin State Journal as potential candidates. Both names may be familiar from the collective bargaining debate in Wisconsin. Van Hollen moved to implement the controversial law despite a court-ordered restraining order preventing it’s full implementation, arguing that the internet posting of the law by the Legislative Research Bureau rendered the restraining order moot.Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (not to be confused with his brother, State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald) shepherded the controversial bill through the Wisconsin Assembly.
- Former Senator Russ Feingold (D): Instead of re-hashing my thoughts on Feingold, I’ll just point to this article. Needless to say, if I were still a Wisconsin voter I would vote for Feingold again in a second.
- U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D): Rep. Baldwin represents my former home district, which includes Madison, the rest of Dane County, and a few surrounding counties. Baldwin was the first openly gay member of congress to be elected as a non-incumbent, and would be the first openly gay Senator if elected. She was elected in 1998, has been comfortably re-elected in 5 out of 6 times, her only close call coming in a 51-49 victory in 2000. In 2010, National Journal ranked her voting record as the most liberal in the House, a distinction she shared with 6 other Representatives.
After the uproar over the collective bargaining bill and the ensuing judicial election between JoAnne Kloppenburg (D) and David Prosser (R), it’s pretty tough to say where Wisconsin stands politically. The protests in Madison seemed to indicate a backlash against Republican overreach, but the judicial election was at times touted as a referendum on this alleged overreach, and Prosser won**. Admittedly, Madison is much more liberal than the rest of the state, so there were more liberals with short commutes to the protests than there were conservatives. On the other hand, however, Prosser won the non-partisan primary over Kloppenburg by a margin of 55% – 25%, while the actual election was decided by 7,000 votes out of 1.5 million cast, a margin of victory of 0.5% for Prosser.
I would love to see Baldwin or Feingold win this race, but the demographics might be against that. Feingold is fresh off of his 2010 defeat, which raises questions as to what he could do differently this next time to improve his standing. I’d like to think that Republicans in Wisconsin would have a hard time finding a candidate as strong as Ron Johnson to run against Feingold, but I don’t think Johnson was that strong of a candidate to begin with. Thompson comes in with much more name recognition and a long history of public service in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, while Baldwin has enjoyed success in her recent re-election campaigns, electing someone rated “the most liberal in Congress” to represent Madison and the surrounding area is much different than electing her to represent the state as a whole.
At this point, the election is so far away that anything beyond the broadest specualation isn’t especially meaningful, so it will be fascinating to watch how this develops over the next year and a half. But as a former Wisconsinite and as an American, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for a Feingold victory…
* Ok, he had sold Kohl’s Food Emporium to A&P by the time I worked there as a stockboy, so he was never really my employer.
** The recount was completed today (5/20/11) and Prosser was declared the winner.