In Wisconsin’s Summer of Decision, the first round went to the Democrats. State Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay defeated Republican David VanderLeest. Hansen won big, 66 percent to 34 percent, on a healthy turnout that Democrats took as a good sign for the eight remaining recall elections spurred by a revolt against Gov. Scott Walker and the anti-union legislation he pushed through a Republican-controlled legislature.
Hansen’s victory doesn’t change the balance in Wisconsin’s State Senate, but by holding on to his seat, Hansen did make it easier for the Democrats to take over. In August, six Republicans and two more Democrats face recalls. If Democrats pick up a net of three seats, they take over the Senate. The recall process was begun by Democrats, but Republicans responded by targeting incumbent Democrats to complicate the opposition’s task.
The GOP once had hope of picking up Hansen’s district, which includes territory that had sung toward the Republicans in 2010. But the candidate perceived as the party’s strongest, State Assemblyman John Nygren, was knocked off the ballot in a challenge to his petitions, and VanderLeest’s past became an issue in the election.
As Steve Contorno wrote in the Green Bay Press Gazette, “Hansen’s victory over a controversial candidate wasn’t a shocker. VanderLeest’s legal and financial troubles became the focus of his campaign, dragging down his bid even after he vowed not to discuss them anymore.” But Contorno also noted that Hansen’s seat was “right-leaning,” and that Republicans had once viewed it as “very winnable.”
Hansen read the results as the first step in a Democratic comeback. “It’s only the beginning,” he declared at a victory celebration.
Of course Hansen would say this, but Contorno pointed to the Democrats’ impressive ground operation in the race. One senses that the energy in these recalls will be on the Democrats’ side, a bigger than usual advantage in mid-summer contests where turnout will be key. And there is normally no better time than August to get attention. If Democrats manage to take over Wisconsin’s State Senate in reaction to the actions of a very ideological conservative governor and legislature, the event will have reverberations far beyond Madison.