Many in the party acknowledge overlooking local races for years, and they're now fighting to claw back at least a share of power in as many states as possible to thwart another round of Republican map-drawing.
Organizing for Action, a political group that evolved from former President Barack Obama's campaign operation, announced Tuesday one of its priorities was flipping control of the Wisconsin Senate. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, run by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, spent at least $35,000 supporting Caleb Frostman, the winning candidate in Tuesday's special Senate election.
Frostman's win marks the 43rd legislative seat nationwide that has flipped Democratic since President Donald Trump took office, according to the Democratic National Legislative Campaign Committee. The victory brings Democrats within just two seats of the Wisconsin Senate majority. The November election will determine control starting in 2019 and give that party an edge heading into the 2020 elections. Whoever is in control after those contests will handle redistricting in 2021.
Wisconsin is among a handful of states where Democrats think they can flip control in at least one house, along with Colorado, Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire.
Wisconsin Democrats have spent the last eight years on the sidelines after Republicans took over the governor's office and both houses of the Legislature in 2011. Walker and Republican legislative leaders have used their majorities to transform Wisconsin's political landscape, eliminating public employees' union rights, relaxing environmental regulations and redrawing legislative districts to consolidate their power.
Winning control of the Senate would, at least for two years, give Democrats the power to block Republican priorities. Walker is also up for re-election this fall, another target for Obama's political operation.
The state could feel the ramifications of a Democratic Senate almost immediately. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule any day on whether the GOP-drawn legislative districts were gerrymandered; if the court orders the Legislature to redraw the boundaries before 2021, a Democratic Senate could force more equitable lines for the party, in turn leading to more competitive elections.
Wisconsin Democrats began building momentum in January when they flipped an open seat in a traditionally conservative state Senate district just east of Minnesota's Twin Cities. Things looked even brighter in April when liberal-backed Rebecca Dallet won a spot on the state Supreme Court in a statewide election. The wins had Walker warning of a blue wave in November.
"Any Republican senator should be nervous," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said. "Even though these seats have been historically Republican, Democrats are winning seats that (the GOP) drew the lines for. Everything is on the table now."
Democrats hoped to keep the momentum in a pair of special elections Tuesday to fill open seats in the 1st Senate District, which includes the state's distinctive, thumb-shaped Door Peninsula, and in the 42nd Assembly District, a smattering of small towns scattered across south-central Wisconsin's corn and soybean fields.
Trump won both districts by double digits. Republican Jon Plumer defeated Ann Groves Lloyd in the Assembly district, but Frostman topped GOP state Rep. Andrew Jacque, 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent, to take the Senate seat, which Republicans have held for more than 40 years.
Plumer and Frostman won't take any votes for months, if at all. The Legislature isn't expected to convene again until January and they both will have to run for re-election in November. Lloyd and Jacque have already registered to run against them this fall.
Plumer's win doesn't change the balance of power in the Assembly, where Republicans now hold a nearly insurmountable 64-35 majority. But Frostman's win narrows the GOP's Senate edge to 18-15.
Shilling said Democrats are targeting five districts in November, including another open seat in northwestern Wisconsin and an open seat in Milwaukee's suburbs.
Republican strategist Brandon Scholz downplayed Frostman's victory, saying the dynamics and atmosphere of the fall election will be much different. Voters will be more engaged and will turn out in much higher numbers than on a Tuesday in June, he said.
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