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Wisconsin Democrats Hope To Capture Open 1st, 2nd Districts

By Gregory L. Giroux, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, Aug. 22, 1998) -- Wisconsin Democrats hope the Sept. 8 primary positions them to repeat November 1996, when they snatched two swing House seats left open by Republican retirements.

This year, Democrats -- just 11 seats shy of majority party status in the 106th Congress -- are eyeing two more Republican seats: the politically competitive 1st District in the southeast and the Democratic-leaning 2nd, which includes Madison, the state capital.

On paper, Democratic prospects for the seats -- left open, respectively, by the Senate candidacy of Rep. Mark W. Neumann and retirement of four-term Rep. Scott L. Klug -- look promising.

Of the two districts, the 2nd is more likely to go Democratic in November.

Solidly Democratic Dane County (Madison), which casts about 70 percent of the 2nd's votes, dominates the district. Of the 15 districts left open around the country this year by Republican retirements, the 2nd has been the most heavily Democratic in recent presidential elections.

The three chief Democrats competing in the Sept. 8 primary are well-known: state Rep. Tammy Baldwin; former Dane County executive Rick Phelps; and state Sen. Joe Wineke. Together they have raised $1.3 million through June 30, almost double the fundraising of the six Republican candidates. No clear favorite has emerged.

Baldwin, who could become Wisconsin's first female House member, is the most liberal of the three Democrats. She is a lesbian, though she prefers to emphasize her issue stances. Thanks in part to largess from groups such as EMILY's List, which aids Democratic women who back abortion rights, Baldwin also is the best funded, posting $562,000 in receipts through June 30 with $300,000 cash on hand. Phelps, who is backed by the centrist New Democrat Network, raised $446,000 and had $255,000 on hand. Wineke, a state legislator since 1983, raised $266,000 and had $159,000 in the bank.

In the similarly open Republican contest, the two best-financed candidates are beer distributor Don Carrig, who raised $235,000, and chiropractor Meredith Bakke, who raised $160,000. Both have put in more than $100,000 of their own money. Like Carrig and Bakke, John Sharpless, a University of Wisconsin-Madison history professor, and former state insurance commissioner Jo Musser have moderate leanings. Nick Fuhrman, a conservative, was the former chairman of the Dane County GOP and was an aide to the House Science Committee.

But it is the GOP field's most conservative candidate -- Ron Greer, a black minister and former firefighter -- who has attracted the most attention. In a recent fundraising letter, Greer, who is known for his opposition to gay rights and recently secured the endorsement of Gary Bauer's conservative Campaign for Working Families, excoriated Baldwin as a "left-wing lesbian."

That drew criticism from the other Republican contenders, but Greer scoffs at suggestions that he is too conservative for the 2nd. Greer has as good a chance of winning as any other Republican, especially if he can galvanize his conservative supporters to vote in an expected low-turnout primary, supporters say.

The district's politics suggest the Democrats would have the edge if Phelps or Wineke is nominated or if the Republicans nominate Greer, and they are slightly favored even if Baldwin wins the primary. A pyrotechnic Baldwin-Greer contest would draw an avalanche of independent expenditures. But the Republican Party's best-case scenario would have Baldwin face a moderate Republican in the mold of Klug, who unseated a longtime liberal Democratic incumbent in 1990 and easily won his re-election races.

1st District

The past three House elections in the 1st, which takes in Racine and Kenosha, have been very close, with the winner taking no more than 51 percent of the vote. This year's contest is expected to follow the same script.

The all-but-certain Democratic nominee is Lydia Spottswood, the former president of the Kenosha City Council. She lost to Neumann in 1996 by just 4,260 votes of about 232,600 cast. She spent more than $700,000 in 1996 and is again waging a well-funded operation, having raised more than $500,000, with $352,000 in the bank as of June 30.

At 28, likely Republican nominee Paul Ryan is nearly two decades younger than Spottswood, but he has an impressive resume. He worked for Wisconsin Republican Sen. Bob Kasten (1981-93) and the conservative think tank Empower America before becoming a top aide to Rep. (now Sen.) Sam Brownback of Kansas. Ryan has raised about $100,000 less than Spottswood, but he is virtually even with the Democrat in cash on hand.

Other Races

Republicans are targeting the 8th District, which Republican Rep. Toby Roth held for 18 years before retiring. In 1996, Democrat Jay W. Johnson narrowly won the open seat. State Rep. Mark Green, the expected nominee, has $192,000 cash on hand, not far behind Johnson's $225,000. Johnson is unopposed in the primary.

In the Senate race, Neumann has an uphill battle to unseat first-term Democrat Russell D. Feingold. A mid-July poll showed Feingold with a substantial lead, but Neumann is an aggressive campaigner whose $1.2 million cash on hand as of June 30 was not far behind Feingold's $1.6 million. Neither has a primary opponent.

In the contest for governor, incumbent Republican Tommy G. Thompson is favored to win a fourth term, which is unprecedented in the state. He has only token primary opposition and will face either lawyer Ed Garvey, the Democrats' 1986 nominee for U.S. Senate, or state Sen. Gary George.

©1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.

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Wisconsin Democrats Hope To Capture Open 1st, 2nd Districts

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