Given an open gubernatorial race, a competitive US Senate race, and 3 competitive House races it has been fairly easy to overlook the races for State Assembly. With a fairly small Democrat majority, it won't take much to flip control to the Republicans, and most people assume that it will happen. What I'm going to try and do here over the next few days is try and figure out just where those pick-ups will come from.
To me, a good place to start are two open seats: the 5th in Northeast Wisconsin and the 80th in South Central Wisconsin.
The 5th is being vacated by Democrat Tom Nelson who is running for Lt. Governor. In the three elections Nelson won here, he outperformed the top of the ticket in what is normally a Republican-leaning district. It is important to note that the district has been trending Democrat over the last three general elections, just as the state as a whole has, however, the margins are not anywhere near what many other areas of the state have been.
There is certainly evidence that this is a bellwether district in terms of the top races. This year, without Nelson on the ticket as an Assembly candidate, it is hard to believe that this will stay a Democrat seat. Jim Steineke, the Republican in the race, ran unsuccessfully in 2008 and though he severely underperformed John McCain's vote totals in the district should be able to keep the race very competitive. It looks like Steineke's got a good organization and a coherent platform that should resonate this year. While there isn't yet a recent campaign finance report for Mert Summers, the Democrat in the race, Seineke's numbers look pretty impressive with over $18,400 cash on hand and over $33,000 raised since the primary in September.
This should be a lean-Republican district and a pick-up for the GOP, but it will be relatively close and I doubt more than a 52 or 53% victory for Steineke given the recent voting trends.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the 80th Assembly District. Now, if Brett Davis were still running for this seat, it wouldn't even be on anyone's radar. That's just how good Brett was in this district. Unfortunately - and I say this as someone who likes Brett a lot and honestly believe he could have been a serious contender for Speaker - he isn't running, having lost in his bid for Lt. Governor on the Republican side.
This race is very interesting. First of all, on paper, no Republican should win this seat. In 2004, John Kerry won 55% of the vote. In 2006, Jim Doyle won 62% and then in 2008, Barack Obama won 65% - it just doesn't look like a good seat for a Republican. Still, as Brett Davis proved, it can be done - and in far worse political conditions than this year.
The candidates are not necessarily political newcomers and should make for a good race down the stretch in terms of GOTV. Janis Ringhand, the Democrat and former Evansville mayor, ran against Davis in 2006. Republican Dan Henke is a Monroe alderman and President of the Common Council. Based on the most recent campaign finance reports, both candidates are flush with cash. Dan Henke holds a lead on that count with $27,000 to spend over the next week. Janis Ringhand has $19,270 to spend.
I think that given the political climate, this is a competitive race - and Ringhand's loss in 2006 could be a liability. The numbers are so good for Democrats in this district that it makes me wonder if she's out of step with the her constituents. Also, the finance reports seem to show a potentially decisive enthusiasm gap given the partisan breakdown of the district. The people I know in the district that I've talked to are cautiously optimistic and say that the race is closer than people might think. Conventional wisdom suggests that this would be a pick-up for the Democrats and I think this is easily the toughest race for Republicans to hold this year.
I'm betting that this is going to be a nail-biter and potentially a recount race. I'd be surprised to see a blowout either way. If I have to make a prediction, I'm going to be wildly optimistic and say that Dan Henke pulls it out and wins, but by less than 500 votes.
*By the way, the margins are a total shot in the dark. There are no polls that I get to see for Assembly races - though I know some are being done. I've just looked at the past elections and making my best guess. I'm totally willing to admit that I am pulling things out of thin air - and I will gladly admit to being 100% wrong on Nov. 3.