Recent trends in Wisconsin voting prove incumbents in the state legislature seeking reelection are about as sure a bet to win as Brett Favre is to start at quarterback for the Packers — that is to say, legislators who want to keep their jobs are exceedingly likely to do so.
The percentage is so extreme that in 1994, 100 percent of Wisconsin state Senators and 96 percent of state Assemblymen who sought reelection won their races, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislators.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin state Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer, the benefit of incumbency was a luxury not to be enjoyed this year. Up for reelection, the conservative failed to even be nominated for the general election in the 20th Senate District, instead being throttled by State Assemblyman Glenn Grothman in the GOP primary, 79 percent to 21 percent.
Panzer’s trouncing Tuesday may, in part, be due to the nature of primary elections, University of Wisconsin political science professor Donald Ferree said.
“You have to keep in mind that the level of awareness is not terribly high in primaries, so it’s easy for motivated people to have influence they wouldn’t normally have at the polls,” Ferree said, noting the traditionally low voter turnout in primaries.
Ferree added supporters of entrenched incumbents often become complacent in primaries, providing an opening for determined challengers like Grothman.
The West Bend Assemblyman attacked Panzer for being too liberal on a number of issues, notably abortion. He also condemned Panzer’s inability to seriously discuss the language of the proposed Taxpayer Bill of Rights on the Senate floor.
Grothman’s challenge was not the first time a member of the legislature has been ostracized for being “out of step” with the party, Ferree said.
“She took a number of positions that could be mobilized against, and primaries reward organization and intensity,” he said. “We’ve seen it in the past in the Republican Party, and even a few times in the Democratic Party.”
However, pigeonholing Panzer as a centrist who disagreed fundamentally with conservatives would not be an accurate assessment, according to Democratic Party spokesman George Twigg.
“Do you want right-wing or extreme right-wing?” Twigg asked. “In the end both Panzer and Grothman are pursuing policies that are not good for the state.”
Although a rare incumbent victim, Panzer has looked out for the interests of the Republican Party in the wake of her loss. She will announce her resignation as majority leader today so as to better prepare the party for the November election.
The Republicans will hold a caucus this morning at the state Capitol, where the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, will be chosen as the new leader of Senate’s Republicans.
It remains uncertain whether Panzer’s ouster and Grothman’s addition will have an ideological shift on the Senate, Ferree said. He noted Grothman would not be the party leader, and will have to build coalitions and work with Senate leaders to accomplish his goals in the legislature’s upper chamber.
To make an impact in the Senate, Grothman would also have to win in the general election. But having already knocked off an incumbent legislator, Grothman might be able to stay confident in winning the highly conservative 20th Senate District, which contains parts of Washington, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac and Ozaukee Counties, campaign spokesperson Jenny Frederick said.
“I didn’t expect to win this by this much. I don’t think anybody did,” Frederick said. “And with the district being so overwhelming Republican, we feel very good about our chances to win the general election.”