All eyes focused on high-stakes battle that could shake up Madison

Sullivan, Vukmir hitting the streets in critical state Senate race

Aug. 25, 2010

The candidates fighting to represent the 5th District in the state Senate live a little more than two miles from each other in Wauwatosa, but their ideological views lie far apart.

Jim Sullivan is a Democrat who is finishing up his first term as state senator. Republican Leah Vukmir represents one-third of the district in the state Assembly.

That means their Tosa neighbors will have a big decision when casting their ballots in November - a decision that could have significant partisan and policy ramifications in an election being closely watched throughout the state.

Control of Senate at stake

"It is conceivable that this might be one of the races that changes the majority party in power," said Dennis Dresang, professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Democrats have a small margin of two seats in the 33-member Senate. If voters aren't happy with what's going on in Madison, the Republicans could benefit from their ire, he said.

"There are going to be a lot of people watching this race not only for control of the Senate, but as a bellwether for what Wisconsin voters think of the Democrats' record," said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

Vukmir senses frustration

Vukmir has been knocking on doors since announcing her candidacy last summer. Between the calls received by her legislative office and chats along the campaign trail, she says she has noticed an increased level of frustration with government.

Jobs, the economy and government spending rank as the top three issues on voters' minds, she said.

"They say, 'We're cutting back and tightening our belt buckles. Why can't the people in Madison do the same?' "

She sees Sullivan's win in the last election as a wrong that should be corrected.

"This is a Republican district. We never should have lost in 2006," she said. "I believe we will have a Republican governor who will need to have the help of at least one house (of the Legislature)."

Plenty of interest in race

Typically, most Wisconsinites don't get too excited about legislative elections, which is evident with the low voter turnout that's usually seen, Dresang said.

However, leaders in both parties say the race in the 5th District has a higher profile than other state races. The significance of this election - and the unique makeup of the district - is not lost on them.

"The thing about Wauwatosa is that it's a community you can't pigeonhole," said Mike Tate, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "They've elected people from both parties. Both sides have a good chance."

The 5th is a swing district that Democrat Tom Barrett and Republicans Peggy Rosenzweig and Tom Reynolds all have held in recent years. That kind of uncertainty has all eyes on this contest, and the candidates are aware of their place in the spotlight.

"The Republicans have very much put a target on my back," Sullivan said.

Sullivan wants to keep serving

Sullivan likens the race to a marathon he ran last fall. It was exhausting work, but there was a major sense of accomplishment in the end.

"This is the work you do for the privilege to serve the people," he said.

Sullivan named job creation, improving public infrastructure and making "reasonable cuts" to the state budget as key points of his campaign platform.

He points to reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's plans to build on the County Grounds as two local opportunities for growth that the state can have an effect on. He supports both projects because they will create local jobs.

Sullivan has received the backing of the state fire and police associations, both of which named him Legislator of the Year for protecting those groups from cuts in state programs. The firefighters even joined him during some door-to-door campaigning.

Vukmir declined to name specific groups or individuals who are supporting her, saying endorsements don't mean much to a campaign. Instead, she said there has been a "grass-roots" push for her, with people from around the state sending in donations.


AGE: 52

BACKGROUND: represented 14th Assembly District since 2002

BEYOND POLITICS: registered nurse and former president of Parents Raising Educational Standards in School; two children


HER TAKE ON RACE: "People keep saying, 'We're cutting back and tightening our belt buckles. Why can't the people in Madison do the same?' "


AGE: 42

BACKGROUND: elected to state Senate in 2006; former Tosa alderman

BEYOND POLITICS: was lawyer and served in Navy Reserve before joining the Senate; married with two sons


HIS TAKE ON RACE: "Do people want someone who is a common-sense moderate, someone who can work across the aisle and think independently?"


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