94th Assembly: The Teacher and the Lawyer


An interesting race is shaping up in the 94th Assembly district, the western Wisconsin district mostly composed of La Crosse County minus the city of La Crosse.

Here, local elementary teacher Tracie Happel is running against Democrat Steve Doyle for the seat, which was held by Mike Huebsch for 16 years until he left to be Secretary of Administration under Gov. Walker.

Happel, in her early 40s, is engaging, dynamic, informed, and she’s entirely unafraid of a challenge, which she explained when she represented pro-Walker teachers in this Fox News interview.

A Republican and active education choice advocate, she’s thoroughly educated and is working on a doctorate in Educational Leadership. She has also led a program helping deaf and hard of hearing kids, among other areas of involvement.

She’s secured the support of professional politicos in Madison and appears to be gaining steam. She was early in collecting the signatures to get on the ballot, has the must-haves like a website and Facebook page, and now has a campaign manager, office, and active door program.

She also got a shout-out from nationally known conservative activist Michelle Malkin, whose profile on Happel’s race was the only one of a Wisconsin candidate and, as a race for a state legislative seat, stood out from the others spotlighting candidates for the U.S House, Senate, and governorships. From Malkin’s website:

Tracie Happel is a conservative Wisconsin public school teacher and mom who is brave, tough, and principled. Happel is running for the state’s 94th Assembly seat and is a grass-roots leader in the fight against Common Core. We need committed constitutionalists like Tracie in every state legislature!

I can’t help but see the parallels between Happel and Jessie Rodriguez, who prevailed in a special election for a district in southeastern Wisconsin with similar demographics late last year. Both are similar in age, both are – obviously – women, and both have a background in education advocating for school choice. While the race for the 94th isn’t a special election, which usually favor Republicans, it is in a midterm in which Gov. Scott Walker will doubtless drive turnout among GOP voters.

Another difference that will likely help Happel is that she’s a teacher who publicly opposes compelled unionization. This, in a district in which many teachers live – the La Crosse and Holmen School Districts are among the largest in Western Wisconsin – should help her chances in November. She has no primary opponent.

Fundraising has been a sore spot for Happel thus far. In the report filed for the first half of 2014 Happel had raised $3,180 with $2,680 on hand, while Doyle raised almost $17,000 with $33,000 on hand. Races like this usually are fought with cashflows exceeding $100,000. But there are three months left, eternity in political years, and Happel has the tenacity to do the necessary work.

The choice that voters in the 94th have is one between a dynamic public school teacher and a stodgy lawyer who has been in area politics for decades.

The seat, which Huebsch won with 60 percent of the vote in his last election in 2010, leans Republican and conservative thanks to its combination of middle- and upper-class suburban neighborhoods in Onalaska, Holmen, and West Salem, and rural areas throughout La Crosse County.


But Doyle will not be easy to beat. His first run for the seat was in 1984 when he narrowly lost to West Salem’s Sylvester Clements. He went on to serve on the La Crosse County Board, rising to board chairman before running to replace Huebsch in a special election in 2011. Doyle narrowly bested Holmen’s Cheryl Hancock in the Democrat primary, going on to beat West Salem contractor John Lautz in the general.

Some attribute Doyle’s victory in that election not only to Doyle’s political aptitude in creating a moderate and bipartisan visage of himself, but also a clunky effort by Republican candidate John Lautz.

In one debate for example, Lautz waffled when asked if he’d support a then-hypothetical concealed carry law while Doyle unequivocally said yes. Doyle, though disingenuous, knew his audience.

If Happel knows her audience, she will explain her support for conservative principles with the same deftness as Doyle. Except in her case it won’t be an attempt to scrape up those voters who seek out winners for whom to vote, it’ll be genuine. And Doyle is not without his weaknesses: he voted against tax cuts, has a 30 percent rating from the state’s chamber of commerce, and has a long record as county board chairman and Democratic party boss in the La Crosse area.

He’s also double-dipping, refusing to give up his taxpayer-funded seat on the La Crosse County Board; for some reason, a $49,000 salary as a state rep isn’t enough, or Doyle is too reluctant to give up the position of power he’s built in county government.

This is one to watch.

About the writer: Chris Rochester has worked in communications and finance for a state Senate and congressional campaign, consulted on numerous Assembly and local races, and has held leadership roles in his local Republican Party. He's communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.