The race to watch: Vukmir vs. Sullivan
In this week’s column for the Waukesha Freeman, a closer look at what could be the most important race in the state aside from the race for governor. Not bad for just 50 cents at your favorite newsstand.
Publication: Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:2010 Feb 04; Section:Opinion; Page Number: 8A
Now is the time for Republicans
GOP two seats away from controlling state Senate
A Republican Party official said to me recently that if the party could not make substantial gains in Wisconsin this year, it would not be able to make gains in any year.
The timing is critical. This is the year of the census, and redistricting for the legislative and congressional boundaries will soon follow. If the Republicans cannot get control of at least one chamber of the Legislature or elect the next governor, the Republican Party will be lost in Wisconsin for a decade.
If there is a canary in the coal mine for the Democrats’ hopes of keeping the Republicans out of power, it would have to be the 5th Senate District, currently occupied by Democrat Jim Sullivan, D-Wauwatosa. The canary has started to cough.
Republicans only need two seats to switch to regain control of the state Senate. Republicans lost control of the Senate four years ago in an election cycle that saw State Treasurer Jack Voight lose to the woefully underqualified Dawn Marie Sass, Congressman Mark Green lose to Governor Jim Doyle, and the Republicans nearly lose control of the state Assembly.
That was also the year Sullivan narrowly defeated controversial Tom Reynolds 51 percent to 49 percent. Reynolds was the victim of a media effort to portray him as odd, and it didn’t help that at times Reynolds contributed to that caricature. Reynolds, by his own admission, did not help his cause by being a poor fundraiser.
Now Sullivan is being challenged by state Rep. Leah, Vukmir R-Wauwatosa. Vukmir is well-known in conservative circles and has some name recognition from her television and radio appearances. She was first elected to the Legislature in a special election to replace Scott Walker when he was elected as Milwaukee County executive.
Early last year, Democratic sources were wondering whether Vukmir would give up her Assembly seat to challenge Sullivan. They had a right to be concerned.
Despite an Assembly ban on fundraising during the state budget deliberations last year, in the last campaign finance reporting period Vukmir raised over $73,000 more than the incumbent Sullivan. Worse for Sullivan, 60 percent of Vukmir’s contributors live in the Senate district. Only 18 percent of Sullivan’s contributors live in the district.
Sullivan has a slight lead in cash on hand, $94,310.71 to Vukmir’s $84,212.02, but Vukmir has already spent $37,770.78. Sullivan’s report shows a campaign not yet up to speed. In the same reporting period, Sullivan only spent $6,571.30.
In an interview Tuesday night, Vukmir said, “Even in this difficult economy, people are eager to give.”
The response to her campaign is mirroring what she has seen in the tea party movement. “People are going to fundraisers that have never been to fundraisers before,” she said.
She said that she’s been thinking “outside the box” to keep them involved. Last weekend, she held a fundraiser at a bowling alley.
Vukmir is in full campaign mode. Vukmir said, “I’m running every day as if I am losing. It’s the only way I know how to win.”
The question in this race will be whether voters see Sullivan as representative of their values. Sullivan has attempted to position himself as a moderate, even voting against the last state budget.
However, Sullivan voted in favor of Healthy Wisconsin, the state Democrats’ attempt at universal health care. Democrats ended up running from their own idea in the last election cycle when it proved as unpopular as the health plan currently in Congress.
Sullivan was also an early endorser of Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton for governor. Lawton proved too radical in reputation for her own party, and withdrew from the race.
Vukmir estimates the district is about 54 percent Republican. It’s the type of district Republicans need to win if they are to show any gains this election year.
Vukmir says she knows the election “is probably going to get ugly at some point. I just need to keep it positive.” She plans on sticking to the theme of taxes, jobs and the economy.
Right now that looks to be the winning formula.
(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)