Wednesday, October 12, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

A longshot Democrat creeping up on
the outside rail of the Senate:
SD12 Bryan Van Stippen
Fear not, suburban Wisconsin, about that patter of little feet in the night. It is simply your neighbors creeping out to remove the Trump sign from their lawn.

That seems all that’s left to many lifelong moderate and conservative Republicans after the latest Trump revelations and his creep-behind-her debate performance. 

There’s a better gambit. Democratic candidates who spring out of these far-flung towns and rural communities now know they have a stronger chance to succeed at the polls.  Forget the track record of the past. Forget the simplistic generalities about labels.  They really may be able to change the state legislature.

As previously detailed, the U.S. Senate already seems lost nationally to the Republicans even as Russ Feingold tops Ron Johnson here in all reputable polls (though Feingold’s people still anticipate a close race). 

Now that Paul (Maybe I’m Not So Much With the Racist Anymore) Ryan refuses to campaign with the top nominee, the GOP is sensing that even the House is in trouble, which was nigh an impossible thought three weeks ago. A Wall Street Journal and NBC poll even indicates most of the country wants Democrats in charge of both chambers.

In Wisconsin this new thinking could be floating down the ballot to races for the Madison state house.  The GOP lock on those chambers may be unraveling even in conservative communities that hate Clinton and traditionally distrust anyone with a D after their name. They’re looking past the labels now.

Their old party at this point is reduced to arguing that at least Republicans can provide a check and balance, but one Republican legislator conceded to me in private, “I don’t think the people want someone to put on the brakes, they want someone who will step on the gas.”

The GOP candidates up and down the ballot have only two choices – abandon Trump and die (among the stubborn core that clings to him) or embrace him and die (among the ideological simpaticos you really care about). Do they really want to be part of this extremism?

And how do their supporters weigh the behavior of local party leaders?   Have they been enablers or ineffectual blindsided pros? Is Trump an aberration or an inevitable outcome of GOP positions and attitudes over the years?

Already the party bosses and secret supporters have pulled their coffers away from Trump and are moving desperately to shore up the bottom.  Even state candidates who didn’t seem in trouble are now getting such help. 

One such race is Senate District 12 in northeast Wisconsin. It was once regarded as inviolate GOP space. 

But outside forces are at work, and there are also inroads being made by Bryan Van Stippen, a local small business owner who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and since has gained broad government and community experience. He is running against the environment’s worst enemy and the NRA’s big supporter, incumbent Sen. Tom Tiffany.

The Kochs through their secret big money arm, Americans for Prosperity (which assures donors their names will be kept invisible), have announced a major ad buy to prop up Tiffany – and probably salvage him.  And AFP is apparently not done there, promising outside financial money in other more rural races.

Meanwhile, news reports from sources previously associated with Republican talking points are turning around and causing sharp discussion.  One reason is that the Republicans have been pushing legislative deals that promote income inequality – and voters throughout the state are sick of that.  They also know throughout the state that Social Darwinism is riding high in Wisconsin schools – the richest communities drawing the best teachers away from the more modest.

Media has been forced to explore the price all of Wisconsin – not just Milwaukee and Madison – are paying for Act 10. Journal Sentinel provided a district by district breakdown as part of the current triple whammy explored in other stories:  loss of teachers, loss of local property tax control, loss of state revenue for public schools to prop up an expanded voucher/charter private industry. Some of the former JS praise of Act 10 now seems written in sand.

Issues that Republicans  running for office could once pooh-pooh are clawing deep. Some are not as obvious as Tiffany’s support of a major property tax hike.  His slavishness to the lead paint industry and other industries smell of pay for play. Van Stippen is also scoring points on the issue of water quality.

It is still a fight from behind. But this race was once not even in the likelihood of the turnover in the Senate, where three seats could reverse control.  Now it’s among the races moving into the questionable column.

Take a journey through other contests, several on the cusp of change:

SD2: Another northeastern district (north of Appleton, west of Green Bay) is host to familiar GOP incumbent Robert Cowles against John Powers, a Vietnam veteran and three-decade teacher in the Shawano area who lost two previous tries for the Assembly.

This time he is running as a down-home change-agent  Democrat  with strong local connections and  refusal of outside money -- in an era where 70% of the country thinks the Citizens United decision has wrongfully allowed secret money to be dumped into local races.  

It’s hard to get a reading on this contest. But Cowles is vulnerable Not only was he the target of a close previous recall effort, he has since voted to expand voucher schools, remove supervision of high capacity wells from the DNR and generally fallen down on his fiscal hawk claims.  Most interesting is the remarkably fast shift in perceptions about him and the opponent.  On October 6 Powers was a long shot. By Oct. 11 he was in contention. You figure out why.

Diane Odeen
SD10: Scoot back to northwestern Wisconsin (beautiful country – do you have friends or relatives there?)  Another former recall target, GOP Sheila Harsdorf, is being crowded by a former foe, Diane Odeen, back for more but in a much stronger position.

Odeen has deep roots in the area, a law degree and a reputation as the sort of community advocate Wisconsin needs.  Harsdorf (like the Olsen race below) has been implicated in news reports about questionable dealings during her recall race.

The GOP was once dismissive of this contest, but they’re not laughing now.  Just looking across the river at Minnesota,  the residents can  see what better leadership can bring them.

SD14: In central Wisconsin. It looks like a strong likelihood for Democrats because their candidate, Brian Smith, has been broadly known for 15 years as an  effective Waupaca mayor.

In comparison, incumbent Luther Olsen, another recall survivor, has become extremely laughable.  Recently when given the choice between touring a deeply troubled veterans’ home in King or judging a local baking contest, he went for the munchies.  His excuse was almost as lame as the decision.

Moreover, votes Olsen took back at the time of the recall have come back to haunt him.  Like Harsdorf  he  was engaged in efforts to protect the lead paint industry with retroactive legislation, later ruled unconstitutional. The Guardian newspaper’s John Doe revelations suggest he would not have survived the recall without such shenanigans. District 14  could well decide it’s better off without him, especially since the people know Smith and like his sensible approach to government fundamentals. 

Mark Harris
SD18: In an open seat previously held by a Republican, Democratic candidate Mark Harris seems understandably way ahead because of past ability and popularity. He brings more than two terms as highly effective Winnebago County Executive where he showed fiscal discipline while improving infrastructure (an ability the state Senate sorely needs). 

Trying to deflect Mark Harris without naming him, the Walker legislature passed a special law that you cannot be both a county executive and a senator. Only Harris fit that description, so many in Winnebago County regard the law as slime politics.  Harris in the meantime cheerfully indicated he didn’t intend to hold both seats simultaneously.

The Democrats are also being challenged notably for three of their own seats but remain confident of beating the efforts back:  Julie Lassa in District 24, Dave Hansen in District 30 and Jennifer Shilling in District 32, where Dan Kapanke is trying to win back the seat he lost in the recall election – now in a year when many state residents in both parties wish that more recalls of these GOP question marks had been successful.

The next column looks at the Assembly.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thanks for the more indepth look. I was not aware of John Powers. There are some legit candidates running against some lightweight lemings so hopefully the dems can flip enough to turn this. They definitely have the stronger candidates and people shgould be sick of one party rule by now.