Democrats’ Senate hopes rest on farmer, guide, spokeswoman
REEDSBURG, Wis. (AP) — Tattooed in blue ink around Kriss Marion’s right wrist is the Bible phrase “Be quick to listen.”
The organic farmer turned state Senate candidate and her fellow Democrats have been doing just that over the last year and they like what they’re hearing: disgust with President Donald Trump and politics in general that they hope will translate to their first Senate majority since 2011.
Party leaders are pinning their hopes for capturing the chamber on Marion, self-described adventure guide Julie Henszey and Girl Scout spokeswoman Lee Snodgrass, a trio of female candidates the party hopes represents the crest of a blue wave this fall.
“We have high hopes for them,” Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said. “We are seeing in elections, post November 2016, voters coming back blue. There is a great dissatisfaction with both a Trump agenda and a (Gov. Scott) Walker agenda.”
Republicans have controlled both houses of Wisconsin’s Legislature for seven years. Walker has used those majorities to reshape the state, stripping public workers of their union rights, authorizing concealed weapons, relaxing environmental regulations and approving a record incentives package worth up to $3 billion for a Foxconn Technology Group flat-screen plant in Mount Pleasant.
Republicans go into the Nov. 6 elections with an all but insurmountable 64-35 advantage in the Assembly but the Senate is a different story. Republicans hold an 18-15 majority there, and anger toward Trump has been trickling into local races. Democrats flipped two key Senate seats in special elections earlier this year and liberal-leaning Rebecca Dallet won a statewide election for state Supreme Court justice in April.
Thirteen Senate seats are in play, including eight Republican seats. If Democrats can hold five seats they already control and newcomers Marion, Henszey and Snodgrass go two-for-three the party would win a 17-16 majority and finally shatter Republicans’ hold on state government.
Marion is facing off against incumbent Republican Howard Marklein in southwestern Wisconsin’s 17th Senate District, a rural region marked by rolling bluffs, small towns and family farms. Marion herself runs an organic farm and bed and breakfast outside Blanchardville.
The district leans moderate. Voters sent Republican Dale Schultz to the Senate for 23 years but he ran afoul of Walker for voting against eliminating public union rights and decided not to seek re-election in 2014 citing extreme partisanship. Trump won the district in 2016 by a 9,000-vote margin but Dallet captured it by 3,565 votes in April.
Marklein works as an accountant and fraud examiner when he isn’t at the Capitol. He sits on the powerful Joint Finance Committee. He’s affable and approachable but quiet; he rarely speaks during committee meetings and floor debates.
He’s been running an old-school campaign so far marked by personal appearances and a series of daily Facebook postings entitled “100 Reasons to Vote for Howard Marklein.” Day 60 was a photo of Marklein in a corn field with the notation “Howard likes corn on the cob, too!” Day 63 offered another photo of Marklein, this time unloading sandbags to fight flooding. The caption: “Howard is helpful.” It seems to be working: as of July 30, he had raised about $215,900, more than twice what Marion had generated.
He didn’t return a message left on his cell phone.
Marion, meanwhile, said she decided to get into politics because she serves as a supervisor in LaFayette County and is tired of watching Republican legislators reduce local officials’ power.
Like Marklein, her campaign has been all ground and pound, appearing in parades and knocking on doors. On a warm September afternoon she marched around Reedsburg, a city of 9,000 people along the Baraboo River an hour northwest of Madison. Decked out in cowboy boots and an orange dress, hair plastered to her forehead with sweat, she carried flyers about herself in one hand and a bag of treats for any dogs she might encounter in the other.
Eighty-three-year-old Richard Nachreiner, a retired crop adjuster, wasn’t impressed. When Marion told him she was a Democrat, he said he wouldn’t do anything for her, he was happy with how things are going and people should give Trump a chance.
A few blocks over, 59-year-old Cathy Johnson greeted Marion by declaring Trump is an embarrassment and Walker is “pompous and smug.” She said she’d vote for Marion just to vent her frustrations.
“People feel kind of dirty about politics right now,” Marion said. “And that’s sad.”
Snodgrass is a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes and doubles as Outagamie County Democratic Party chairwoman.
She faces an uphill battle against Senate President Roger Roth in the 19th District, which encompasses most of the Fox Cities. Roth’s family has deep political roots in the area — his uncle was a former longtime congressman — and he’s outraised her by a nearly three-to-one margin
Snodgrass said she jumped into the race because no one else wanted to challenge Roth. She said she’s trying to avoid mentioning Trump on the campaign trail, saying she doesn’t need to draw more attention to him.
“People are sick of the constant negative rhetoric,” she said.
Trump won the 19th in 2016 but Dallet, the liberal-leaning state Supreme Court justice, took it this spring.
Roth’s campaign didn’t return a message.
Henszey leads groups on Grand Canyon hikes. She faces Republican state Rep. Dale Kooyenga for an open seat in suburban Milwaukee’s 5th Senate District.
She wants to restore collective bargaining for public workers. Campaign finance reports show she’s received $4,000 from unions. She also wants to devote more money to roads, saying she spent $300 to repair two sway bars on her car because of damage bad roads did to the vehicle.
“I couldn’t stand by and watch our democracy be dismantled. And that’s kind of globally,” Henszey said. “I’ve knocked on thousands and thousands of doors. What I’m hearing is people are disillusioned with irresponsible leadership, from the White House all the way down to the (state) Capitol.”
Kooyenga sits on the finance committee with Marklein. An accountant by trade and a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, he projects a stern demeanor and paints himself as a fiscal hawk. His campaign had $270,000 on hand at the end of July, more than six times what Henszey had in the bank. He didn’t return a message left on his cell phone.
Trump easily won the 5th, which includes the Republican stronghold of Waukesha County as well as parts of Democratic-leaning Milwaukee County. The district swung to Dallet in April by 15,000 votes.
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1