Growing Number of Candidates Unopposed In General Election

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Growing Number of Candidates Unopposed In General Election

Premiere Date: 
August 8, 2014

Zac Schultz looks at the increased number of legislative seats decided at the primaries.

 

Episode Transcript: 

Zac Schultz:

In April of 2013, just five months after being re-elected to the assembly, Republican Howard Marklein announced he was running for senate.

Howard Marklein:

I was asked by a number of people to consider running.

Zac Schultz:

The move set up a potential primary with Republican senator Dale Schultz, who has held the seat since 1991.

Howard Marklein:

I'm not afraid to make, you know, tough decisions and, you know, I just-- I just felt the time was right.

Zac Schultz:

Schultz had fallen out of favor with the party after voting no on Act 10 and holding up changes to mining regulations. He went on to vote no on the budget and the mining bill. Marklein is considered a more conservative Republican and voted yes on all those issues.

Robin Vos:

When Howard decided to run, he really felt that Dale Schultz was out of line with his district, that he had forgotten where he came from, and that voters wanted him to be more conservative.

Zac Schultz:

Democrats say it's not that Senator Schultz’s district became more conservative than him, it's that the Republican party became more conservative.

Chris Larson:

It wasn't that he wasn't representing the district. He wasn't representing the interests of one political party, so they decided to go after him.

Zac Schultz:

In the end, Dale Schultz decided not to run again.

Dale Schultz:

Because I simply have realized that there's more to life than politics.

Zac Schultz:

So how did it happen that Schultz went from the Republican majority leader in the senate a decade ago to getting pushed out by a primary today?

Dale Schultz:

Redistricting and money, because without those, you couldn't do what people are doing.

Zac Schultz:

Redistricting has created an even larger number of safe seats in the legislature for both parties, which means low turnout partisan primaries often determine who goes to Madison.

Dale Schultz:

You really amplify the most extreme elements of both political parties, and that I think is changing the process.

Zac Schultz:

The evidence is in the numbers. There are 99 assembly seats in Wisconsin. This fall 42 incumbents will go unchallenged, 24 Republicans and 18 Democrats. In addition, the parties aren't even willing to challenge some open seats. Five races have only Democrats running in the primary and five more have only Republicans. That means 52 races will not be a race at all. Add in three unchallenged incumbents in the senate, and of the 116 legislative races on the ballot, 55 will go unchallenged. That's a 25% increase over the average election since 2000.

Kenneth Mayer:

A lot of times we see uncontested races. It doesn't mean that there are no Republicans or Democrats, there just aren't enough to make it worthwhile for that party's candidate to run.

Howard Marklein:

The parties are more realistic in terms of their-- You know, is it worth it to run a token, you know, candidate.

Dale Schultz:

People are recognizing it's pointless to run in these races.

Zac Schultz:

In addition, most of the races that are challenged won't be competitive. You win elections by getting the most votes, but we compare elections by calculating the margin of victory as a percentage, and 55/45, a ten-point margin, is considered a very solid win and not a competitive race. Since 2000, 82% of all legislative elections have been won by more than ten points. By comparison, 2012 saw the fewest competitive races in a decade.

Peter Barca:

It's indisputable that you have far less competition today.

Zac Schultz:

That means the average legislator doesn't have to worry about being beaten by the other party.

Tim Cullen:

--only has to worry about the primary in their own party. Their only risk is the primary.

Howard Marklein:

When you don't have that challenge from the other party, I think there's maybe more of a tendency to, you know, challenge an incumbent within your party possibly.

Zac Schultz:

Marklein isn't the first assemblyman to challenge a senator from his own party. The biggest case came in 2004, when Republican Glenn Grothman primaried Republican senator Mary Panzer, who was the sitting majority leader. Grothman accused Panzer of not being conservative enough.

Glenn Grothman:

When you win a race, it shows the other Republicans that people want more conservatism. So I think when I defeated Mary Panzer, it not only changed who was representing the 20th district, I think it sent a message to other Republicans.

Zac Schultz:

Grothman continues to follow his own example. He accused Republican congressman Tom Petri of not being conservative enough, and challenged him in the primary this year. Petri decided not to run.

Glenn Grothman:

It seemed to me that if I could defeat Congressman Petri, I could change what the Republicans were doing in Washington, or try to change that.

Zac Schultz:

It's a national trend, with the Tea Party taking out establishment Republicans.

Kenneth Mayer:

You do have a concerted effort that had been very successful in the last two or three election cycles to replace more moderate candidates with far more conservative candidates.

Brian Schimming:

So I think we've had a pretty conservative-- over-all, a pretty legislative profile.

Kenneth Mayer:

If you elect a more ideologically cohesive, conservative or liberal party caucus, that will affect the leaders that you select.

Robin Vos:

I think I'm a reflection of the people who elect me.

Kenneth Mayer:

I think someone like Robin Vos is an outcome of electing more conservative members to the caucus.

Zac Schultz:

But no one is safe, even Robin Vos.

Robin Vos:

I'm the only Republican right now in the assembly who actually has a primary, so I understand that that's always a possibility.

Kenneth Mayer:

Most of the examples are in the Republican party these days. There are cases in the Democratic party.

Zac Schultz:

In 2010, Chris Larson ran in a primary against Democratic senator Jeff Plale. Plale had helped kill a renewable energy bill in the last session and would go on to vote against union contracts, and eventually work in Governor Scott Walker's administration.

Chris Larson:

He was way on the other side of it, not just working with them, but working against his own interest and the interest of his district.

Zac Schultz:

Two years later, Larson encouraged other Democrats to run in primaries against incumbent Democrats.

Chris Larson:

2012 was a different year where we had different progressives and different people challenging some of the incumbents who were there and not necessarily representing the interests of their community anymore.

Zac Schultz:

One such candidate was Mandela Barnes who had been looking to go run in Milwaukee's 11th district.

Mandela Barnes:

I made my decision to run in 2010.

Zac Schultz:

Barnes defeated the incumbent Democrat, Jason Fields, in the primary. There was no general election challenger. Fields supported school choice, but Barnes says otherwise he wasn't too far out of line with his fellow Democrats.

Mandela Barnes:

Some issues he may have been more moderate on, but it's not like we're talking about some wolf in sheep's clothing, if you will.

Jason Fields:

The parties say, you have to agree with us 100% on every issue. Well, the people don't say that.

Zac Schultz:

Fields was a four-term incumbent with a reputation for being able to work with Republicans.

Jason Fields:

I was more about getting work done, whereas some individuals are, well, we just need to blast the Republicans. That's not my style.

Zac Schultz:

Robin Vos says the loss of Jason Fields in the legislature had an effect.

Robin Vos:

I think it silenced a lot of Democrats.

Zac Schultz:

But Democrats don't think it's comparable to what Republicans are doing to moderates like Dale Schultz.

Peter Barca:

That is not even close to what's happening in the Democratic side of the aisle. It's a completely different scenario.

Mike Tate:

I think it's a little different when we see, you know, Republicans trying to keep-- out right wing each other. I think there's a difference.

Mandela Barnes:

No, I'd say apples and oranges.

Jason Fields:

They may be apples and oranges with their values, but they’re not apples and oranges as far as their techniques and strategies to annihilate people within their own party.

Tim Cullen:

Why that’s bad for the system is that it tends to send to Madison Democrats who are further to the left, Republicans who are further to the right. And then get up here and they're not this far apart politically, they're this far apart politically, and everybody goes, why can’t they get along? That isn't where they're coming from, that isn’t how they got here and isn’t who they're responsive to.

Robin Vos:

Does make it more difficult to find compromise sometimes? Yeah, sometimes it does. But that's also what's happening around the country.

Mike Tate:

I don't think it helps in terms of electing people who have a great interest in reaching across the aisle.

Chris Larson:

It is making it tougher. When people just have to appeal to a primary electorate, you know, they don't have an interest in trying to work across the aisle.

Zac Schultz:

Even without getting a primary challenger, a large number of Democratic and Republican moderates in the legislature have simply decided not to run again in recent years.

Dale Schultz:

I just think that this tone that we have in Wisconsin really isn't working out for the citizens.

Jason Fields:

We are a dying breed, and you tell me how well that's working for the state of Wisconsin. 


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