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Legislative primaries worth watching in Wisconsin

Source: Jimmie Kaska | Civic Media

Legislative primaries worth watching in Wisconsin

There will be dozens of August primaries that will shape general elections. Here are four primary races to keep an eye on.

June 11, 2024 4:08 PM CDT

By: Hallie Claflin, Jack Kelly and Ava Menkes / Wisconsin Watch

For months, anticipation about November’s legislative races has grown. 

A Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in December to throw out the state’s Republican gerrymandered voting maps cleared the way for new boundaries, which were drawn by Gov. Tony Evers and signed into law in February. Evers’ maps could result, at least on paper, in either party winning control of the Legislature, representing a potential sea change in Wisconsin politics.

However, before we get to November, there will be dozens of August primaries that will shape general elections. Here are four primary races to keep an eye on.

1. 19th Assembly District (Milwaukee)

Rep. Ryan Clancy, D-Milwaukee, faces a challenge from Jarrod Anderson in the Democratic primary. Clancy, a former teacher, helped reboot the Legislature’s socialist caucus in January 2023 for the first time since the 1930s.

He’s been an outspoken critic of the war in Gaza and was one of a handful of Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin to support a protest vote effort against President Joe Biden in April’s presidential primary.

Anderson is a lawyer and health policy advocate who says he’s running because the state needs “Democratic unity” and lawmakers who aren’t focused on “headline-chasing.” He also has the backing of Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson — a Biden ally who easily won reelection in April.

The winner of August’s primary is likely to win November’s general election in the heavily Democratic district.

What we’re watching: Can a left-wing incumbent who bucks his own party survive against a challenger who seemingly wants to fall in line with party leaders?

2.  24th Assembly District (Germantown and Menomonee Falls)

This GOP primary is a rematch of sorts, pitting Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, and state Sen. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, against each other in a solidly Republican district. 

The two lawmakers previously squared off in February 2023, when they both ran for the Republican nomination in a special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat. Knodl easily won that primary, capturing almost 57% of the vote.

Under the new maps, Knodl was drawn into the same district as Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville. Knodl decided to run for the Assembly to avoid a costly primary against Stroebel, he said in February, adding that the district also needs “a conservative who is respected by his colleagues.” He previously served in the Assembly from January 2009 to May 2023.

Brandtjen, whom former President Donald Trump endorsed, has openly feuded with other Republican lawmakers in recent years. In November 2022, her colleagues voted to bar her from attending Assembly Republican closed caucus meetings. 

What we’re watching: What type of Republican candidate will voters in this Milwaukee suburban area support: a Trump-aligned firebrand or a conservative more closely aligned with party leaders?

3. 78th Assembly District (Madison) 

Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, is running in a Democratic primary against Maia Pearson, vice president of the Madison School Board. Stubbs was drawn into the heavily Democratic district, which includes Madison, Monona, McFarland, Fitchburg and Blooming Grove, after representing the 77th Assembly District for three terms.

Stubbs, Dane County’s first Black representative in the Legislature, is a former probation and parole officer. Her primary focus has been criminal justice reform, and she worked with Republicans on a task force on racial disparities. She has also championed legislation that would create a task force on missing and murdered African American women and girls, though the bill was blocked by the GOP-controlled Senate after receiving bipartisan support in the Assembly. 

Stubbs formerly chaired the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus, but her colleagues removed her from the role in 2022. Last year the Dane County Board, where she got her start in politics, blocked her appointment to become the county’s human services director.

Pearson, who is also Black, has served on the Madison School Board since 2021 and has the backing of state Rep. Francesca Hong, D-Madison. Pearson is in the race to “restore rights” and “protect freedoms,” she said in a video launching her campaign.

What we’re watching: Has Stubbs’ recent political rough patch cost her in the heart of the state’s resurgent Democratic Party?

4. 6th Assembly District (Shawano) 

Rep. Peter Schmidt, R-Bonduel, faces Rep. Elijah Behnke, R-Oconto, who was drawn into the 4th Assembly District under Wisconsin’s new maps but is running in the 6th District to avoid a primary against Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, who has held office since 2015. 

Both Schmidt and Behnke are newer members of the Assembly, with Schmidt first elected in 2022 and Behnke winning his seat in an April 2021 special election. This Republican primary is among a handful of incumbent vs. incumbent contests that are a result of the 2024 redistricting.

Schmidt’s hold on the solidly red seat could be on shaky ground. In 2022, he won his Republican primary by only 63 votes. After the primary, the Republican Party of Shawano County withdrew its support for Schmidt’s campaign and censured him due to a 2019 criminal conviction, in which he was charged with disorderly conduct for choking a worker on his farm.

What we’re watching: Does local party support matter, or will voters in Trump country reward an incumbent convicted of a crime?

Forward is a look at the week in Wisconsin government and politics from the Wisconsin Watch statehouse team.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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