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2022 Wisconsin State Legislature Election Preview: The State Senate
Republicans are very likely to win a supermajority in the State Senate. But a handful of key races could really change things.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
This column is part of The Recombobulation Area’s 2022 Wisconsin State Legislature Election Preview. Read the introduction to the series here. Subscribe to see the rest of the series in your inbox.
In the 2022 elections for the Wisconsin State Legislature, there is a real chance Republicans could win a supermajority. In the Wisconsin State Senate, there is a better than 50-50 chance that Republicans could win a supermajority.
They are just a single seat shy of one now. If they pick up one more, they will have veto power in the upper chamber of the legislature. This would have serious ramifications for Wisconsin.
If Republican Tim Michels wins the race for governor, this presumably wouldn’t matter quite as much, given that Republicans would have control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature. But we really have no idea how Michels would operate with this current legislature, most of which endorsed Rebecca Kleefisch, who Michels defeated in the primary.
But if Tony Evers is re-elected as governor, a Republican supermajority in the State Senate would create all kinds of problems for his ability to govern. We know this because they are already creating all kinds of problems for his ability to govern, like refusing to confirm cabinet secretaries for years on end or refusing to address other appointments entirely, leading to situations like we’ve seen with the Department of Natural Resources board, where one Republican-appointed member has just refused to leave at the end of his term, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Devin LaMahieu has refused to schedule a hearing for Evers’ appointment. These harmful, anti-democratic tendencies would only be further emboldened by a supermajority.
But unless Republicans also gained a supermajority in the Assembly – which is less likely, but certainly possible (stay tuned for our Assembly preview!) – they wouldn’t be able to override the governor’s veto without a few Democratic votes siding with Republicans in the Assembly.
There are 17 seats that will be on ballots in Wisconsin this year. Half of the State Senate is on the ballot each fall election cycle, with each senator serving a four-year term. Of the 16 not on the ballot this year, 10 are Republicans and six are Democrats. There are also four seats going uncontested in the general election, all of which are held by Republicans. So in truth, before votes are cast by Nov. 8, the balance will be 14 to six.
The current State Senate is made up of 21 Republicans and 12 Democrats. One more Republican gives them a supermajority. And lo and behold, since it’s Republicans who have drawn the maps, there is a better than 50-50 chance that they will win a supermajority this November.
A key retirement from a top Democrat kicks the door wide open for Republicans to seize that opportunity. Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley, who represents the 25th District in far northwest Wisconsin along Lake Superior, is retiring at the end of her term. This district has shifted to the right in recent years, and Donald Trump won the district by 10% in the 2020 election. Redistricting also gave the district a slightly more Republican lean.
There are a number of important names retiring or leaving the State Senate at the end of this term, so its internal makeup is likely to see significant changes. Retiring legislators include Republicans Dale Kooyenga, Kathy Bernier and Jerry Petrowski, and Democrats Janis Ringhand, Janet Bewley and John Erpenbach. Former Senate President Roger Roth is the Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor.
Many of these retiring state senators held important positions. For the Democrats, in addition to Bewley as Minority Leader, Erpenbach has been a longtime member of the powerful Joint Finance Committee and Ringhand is Assistant Minority Leader. For the Republicans, Kooyenga and Bernier are also members of the Joint Finance Committee, and Bernier is also the Chair of the elections committee, and has been one of the few voices of reason on the Republican side of the aisle when it comes to 2020 election conspiracies. Next term’s State Senate will look quite different regardless of how the fall elections shake out.
But now that we’ve taken a look at the bigger picture, let’s get into the details. We’ve broken this down into several categories, but are focusing primarily on the three competitive seats that will determine whether or not Republicans will gain a supermajority.
In the head-to-head breakdowns below for each individual race, the Democrat in each race listed is on the left, the Republican on the right. As we discussed in the introduction column for this series, the “district lean” is calculated using a statistical formula from Marquette University’s John D. Johnson, who averaged the results from the 2016 presidential, 2018 gubernatorial and 2020 presidential election results in each to calculate a “seat lean” of which party has the advantage and to what degree in each district. Projections from CNalysis are included in our breakdown; see their full forecast and support their work here.
And before we get into these races, let’s not forget the larger dynamics at play for the midterm election year. Historically, with a Democratic president in office, Republicans have the advantage. This year might be different than most midterm election years, mainly due to the Dobbs decision on abortion rights and the 1849 law that went into place in Wisconsin, but Republicans will be going into November as favorites in typically 50-50 races. Of course, there are fewer of those 50-50 races now in the State Senate with new maps, but it’s a factor that can’t be overlooked. Incumbents also have an advantage as well, especially in down-ballot races. CNalysis projects that there is a 72% chance that Republicans gain a supermajority in the State Senate this election.
This preview is separated into the following categories:
The Competitive Seats (3)
The Open Seats (5)
The Safe Republicans (3)
The Safe Democrats (2)
The Uncontested Republicans (4)
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The Competitive Seats (3)
31st: Jeff Smith vs David Estenson
Western Wisconsin projects to be among the most competitive areas in the state up and down the ticket, with Democratic incumbents in both the Senate and Assembly facing close races, and the state’s closest congressional race featuring Republican Derrick Van Orden and Democrat Brad Pfaff competing for the open seat in the 3rd District.
In this State Senate race, Smith has an advantage as an incumbent, but there’s a slight Republican lean to this district that’s likely to make this a very close race. This district is located north of La Crosse, along the state border and the Mississippi River, and includes most of Eau Claire.
Jeff Smith is serving in his first term in the State Senate, winning by more than 5% in 2018. He previously served in the State Assembly from 2007 to 2011, unseating a Republican incumbent in the 2006 election. He later lost a close race in the 93rd Assembly District in 2012 and again in 2014, both against Republican Warren Petryk, after redistricting. He served as the Town Chair in Brunswick from 2001 to 2007 and founded the Parent Advisory Committee for the Eau Claire School District. He was also a small business owner, running a window cleaning business for more than 35 years. You can find his legislative record here.
Republican Dave Estenson did not face a competitive primary in August. He’s a member of the Whitehall School District Board of Education, is a former police officer, and owns a trucking business.
Estenson is now facing controversy after reports showed that the state Department of Justice investigated Estenson for misconduct allegations while he was working as a police officer at the Strum Police Department, including having sexual relations with a woman while on duty, making comments that she took as a threat, and having a sexual relationship with a woman who was in a bar underage. He responded with a statement saying “...as a single young man, I made some poor decisions surrounding my personal relationships,” but noted that “no legal action was taken” as a result of the investigation.
(Edit: Estenson was also at the Capitol on Jan. 6. He was interviewed about his experience there for the Trempealeau County Times. It’s a wild story.)
District Lean: GOP+1.6
CNalysis projection: Tilt R
2020 result: Trump+4
5th: Jessica Katzenmeyer vs. Rob Hutton
This is an open seat in Milwaukee’s western suburbs, following the decision from Republican Dale Kooyenga not to seek re-election. This district is in a part of the Milwaukee metro area that’s been trending to the left in recent elections, and was on track to becoming a genuine pickup opportunity for Democrats after many years losing ground in the Senate.
But then redistricting happened. The lines of this district shifted from a Dem+0.5 lean to a GOP+7.7 lean in one of the prime examples of how Republicans made these new maps even more egregiously gerrymandered than the ones from last decade. See our story from earlier this year on how Wauwatosa is at the heart of the Republican gerrymander.
Jessica Katzenmeyer won a competitive primary in August to become the Democratic candidate in this district, defeating former congressional candidate Tom Palzewicz 54% to 46%, in what many considered an upset. In 2020, Katzenmeyer ran for Assembly in the 15th District, losing to Joe Sanfelippo 55% to 45%. She has worked in various union leadership roles throughout her career and is on the City of West Allis Plan Commission. She is the first transgender woman to advance through a primary for state office, and if elected, she would be the first transgender person to serve in the Wisconsin State Senate.
Rob Hutton also lost a race for Assembly in 2020 when Sara Rodriguez defeated him by less than 1,000 votes, flipping the seat from red to blue – one of just three red-to-blue flips in the Assembly under last decade’s maps. Hutton had served four terms in the Assembly, first being elected in 2012. He is a business owner, currently owning two industrial coatings firms in southeastern Wisconsin.
District Lean: GOP+7.7
CNalysis projection: Likely R
2020 result: Even
19th: Kristin Alfheim vs. Rachael Cabral-Guevara
This is an open seat after State Sen. Roger Roth resigned to run for lieutenant governor. Along with the 5th District, it is one of just two realistic pickup opportunities for Democrats this election cycle. This district is in the Fox Valley, quietly one of the swingier regions in the state, and the 19th includes the cities of Appleton and Neenah on the northwest end of Lake Winnebago.
The Republican in the race is Rachel Cabral-Guevara, who currently serves as the representative of the 55th District in the Wisconsin State Assembly. She is in her first term, and is the vice chair of the Assembly’s Mental Health Committee. She won a competitive primary to become the Republican nominee in this race, defeating Andrew Thomsen 64% to 36%. Cabral-Guevara is a nurse practitioner who runs her own practice and previously taught at the UW-Oshkosh College of Nursing. You can find her legislative record here.
Kristin Alfheim is a member of the Appleton City Council, serving in her first term. She has also been on the Board of Directors for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Wisconsin for many years, including serving as an ambassador to Rep. Mike Gallagher and former congressman Reid Ribble. She has spent much of her career in the insurance and financial services industry, currently owning her own business. She’s been endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that endorses LGBTQ candidates. She is also one of six legislative candidates backed by State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski’s newly formed PAC, which was created from her Senate campaign committee, which she converted to continue the fight against Ron Johnson and also support women running in key legislative races in Wisconsin.
District Lean: GOP+5
CNalysis projection: Lean R
2020 result: Trump+2
The Open Seats (5)
Replacing: Janis Ringhand (D)
23rd: Jesse James (R, uncontested) (GOP+17)
Replacing: Kathleen Bernier (R)
James is currently serving in the State Assembly and has since 2019. He is now making the jump to the Senate. He is facing a Democratic challenger, Dan Hardy, but Hardy won’t be on the ballot and is running as a write-in.
In the August primary, James defeated Brian Westrate, the former treasurer of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, who had a significant fundraising advantage over James. Westrate may be familiar to some readers who recall his plea to attendees of a “Reopen Wisconsin” protest in 2020 to leave their confederate flags at home, while saying the “confederacy was more about states rights than slavery.” Westrate was also part of Rebecca Kleefisch’s campaign leadership team. Tough primary for him.
Replacing: Janet Bewley (D)
The 25th District is the largest Senate district in Wisconsin, located in the far northwest part of the state, bordering Lake Superior. As mentioned previously, this seat is the most likely pickup for Republicans this election cycle, which – if they were to hold every other seat – would give them a supermajority. Bewley is now nearing the end of her second term as Senator. In 2018, she won re-election by 2.2%. She also served in the Assembly from 2010 to 2015.
Bewley was also recently involved in a fatal multi-car crash near Lake Superior that killed a 27-year-old Pennsylvania woman and her 5-year-old daughter. Bewley was not injured. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that an intern for the paper was interviewing Bewley by phone as the crash occurred. Bewley told the reporter she had cataract eye surgery the day before. Officials are waiting on a toxicology report before determining whether any charges will be filed.
(Edit Nov. 2: The Journal Sentinel reported that the woman who was killed in the crash was driving 100 mph at the time.)
Kelly Westlund is the Democrat running to hold the seat. Before running, she worked as the Northwest Regional Representative for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin since 2015. She served on the Ashland City Council from 2011 to 2013 and ran for congress in 2014, winning a competitive primary, but losing in the general election to incumbent Republican Sean Duffy. She has also worked as the executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Sustainability and is a small business owner.
Running to flip the seat is Romaine Quinn, who served as a member of the State Assembly for three terms. He was first elected in 2014, flipping a Democratic-held seat in the 75th District. He was the chair of the Science and Technology Committee from 2017 to 2020 and vice chair of the Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee from 2015 to 2018. He did not seek re-election in 2020. Quinn was also elected to be the mayor of Rice Lake when he was 19 years old.
Replacing: John Erpenbach (D)
Replacing: Jerry Petrowski (R)
(Note: The 5th and 19th districts listed in the previous category above are also open seats.)
The Safe Republicans (3)
The Safe Democrats (2)
The Uncontested Republicans (4)
9th: Devin LaMahieu (GOP+18)
13th: John Jagler (GOP+16.5)
21st: Van Wanggaard (GOP+19)
33rd: Chris Kapenga (GOP+27.5)
The most likely outcome for the Wisconsin State Senate is that Republicans emerge with either a 22-11 or 23-10 supermajority, depending on what happens in the 31st District. The best defense Democrats have against that supermajority is to protect the 31st — which looks increasingly likely given the controversy surrounding the Republican candidate, but is no sure thing — and to win one or both of the races in the 5th and 19th. The long shot opportunity is to hold the 25th, but victory in this election cycle for a Democrat is less likely than it might be in other years.
If you live in cities like Brookfield, Elm Grove or New Berlin (in the 5th), or in Appleton, Neenah or Grand Chute (in the 19th), you can make an enormous impact on statewide politics with your vote.
Let’s not forget, too, that none of this is certain, and that democracy is built from the ground up. Even if a candidate is facing long odds in a deeply gerrymandered district, these races can be swung by just a few votes, and any one person can make a real difference by getting involved. Supporting candidates in these down-ballot races can help candidates at the top of the ticket, too, and can help build the infrastructure for long-term change.
Vote, get involved, make a difference.
COMING SOON: The Recombobulation Area’s 2022 Wisconsin State Legislature Election Preview: State Assembly
(That’s right, all 99 seats.)
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. His work was recently featured in The New York Times. Before launching The Recombobulation Area in 2019, he worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s won 13 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.