Will Democrats Keep Shilling?

Update: The Democrats re-elected Shilling minority leader unanimously late this afternoon.

Is it time for Wisconsin Democrats to panic over their eroding minorities in the state legislature?

If Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling survives the just-announced recount in her razor-thin victory over challenger Dan Kapanke, will she survive as the leader of the shrinking minority of the Senate Democrat caucus? By the time most people read this, that decision will have already been made.

It’s hard to know what Senate Democrats will decide, but they are caucusing today to elect leadership. If they re-elect Shilling as minority leader and she loses the recount, will they be even more rudderless?

Shilling tentatively beat Kapanke by 56 votes, atypical for a party leader to say the least. The election also saw the election of Dan Feyen, a newcomer to elective office, over the well-known Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris, who initially appeared to be the favorite to win. Feyen won the swing district by a strong 56-44 margin.

More significantly, incumbent Julie Lassa lost Senate district 24 to another newcomer to elective office, Portage County GOP chairman Patrick Testin. He knocked off the 12-year incumbent and failed Congressional candidate by a relatively solid margin of around 52-48, despite losing the district’s largest population center, Portage County – the only county he lost in the 6-county Senate district.

The Senate Democrats now have a paltry 20-12 minority in the state Senate, the smallest their caucus has been since 1971. Should the Democrats decide to flee the state again as they did during the Act 10 uproar, they could literally do so in two minivans.

If Shilling loses her recount, that margin will shrink to 21-11, the smallest Democrat caucus since 1967. The fact that the GOP nearly toppled – and could yet topple – the leader of the Senate Democrat caucus in a left-leaning district with a deep blue population center in the City of La Crosse is perhaps the fact Democrats should look most closely at. Any clear-eyed observer of that election (such as myself – it’s my home turf) knows that Shilling did not put in the elbow grease needed to ensure a victory.

They’ll also look at this: Under Shilling’s leadership, Senate Democrats directed appreciable resources into a futile quest to defeat GOP Senator Luther Olsen, who also won. No Republican incumbent Senator lost, so while Shilling was out playing offense, she should’ve been playing defense, especially in the 24th and back home. Shilling took her cue from Hillary Clinton, who ignored states like Wisconsin and Michigan in an arrogant effort to turn the electoral vote into a blowout. She did – for Trump.

President-elect Trump’s victory in Wisconsin was surprising to put it mildly, and it’s hard to fault Sen. Shilling for not seeing it coming. The Democratic Party is out of touch top-to-bottom with average, working Wisconsinites and Americans. For example, in a district where hunting and gun ownership is a cherished tradition, Shilling gets an F from the NRA every cycle. Given a list of far-left pet causes, Shilling checks every box, meaning she’s more in the mold of a Madison activist than a rural seed salesman (Kapanke).

Her decisions are out of touch with the reality Wisconsin Democrats find themselves in. Wisconsin hasn’t been a “blue” state since 2010, with the exception of Pres. Obama’s and Sen. Baldwin’s victories in 2012 (Baldwin’s victory can be as much attributed to the Republican primary, which left eventual nominee Tommy Thompson almost broke). Instead of ensuring her caucus’s walls held, Sen. Shilling launched an invasion of another castle and paid the price, especially in the Lassa race.

To paraphrase Kenny Chesney, bricks of the Democrats’ defenses are scattered on the ground.

In 2014, Democrats ousted Chris Larson as their minority leader after the party ostentatiously lost the centrist Senate district formerly held by Dale Schultz to conservative Republican Howard Marklein. Will Shilling meet the same fate?

Democrats may well retain Sen. Shilling as their leader in the Senate, if for no other reason than they have no one to take her place other than maybe Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Madison-area lefty who would have trouble connecting with increasingly Republican-leaning out-state voters, especially in the populous Fox Valley.

That in itself is a symbol of the current state of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s an armchair politico, veteran of several campaigns, and communications specialist. He's the communications director for the MacIver Institute. Commentary here is strictly his own.