This election season, twenty seats in the Wisconsin State Legislature don’t have an incumbent candidate. The thirteen state assembly and seven senate seats have either already been vacated by candidates or their representatives aren’t seeking re-election.
In Dane County, a number of seats without an incumbent set off a series of tense competitions during the partisan primary in August. Of the twenty seats that are up for grabs, six are in the WORT listening area.
Locally, one of the most notable seats without an incumbent is the 26th Senate District, which represents most of Madison and areas to the west. The district has been held by 93-year-old Fred Risser since 1962.
Risser is the longest-serving state legislator in the nation. He’ll be replaced this fall by Democrat Kelda Roys, who is running without a Republican challenger.
Another notably vacant state Senate seat is that of Democrat Mark Miller, who has served for more than twenty years in the state legislature. Miller’s district includes swaths of territory to the east of Madison. In January, the former Senate minority leader announced that he would retire at the end of his current term.
The 77-year-old state senator from Monona says it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of state lawmakers. He says the biggest challenge facing the incoming batch of Wisconsin legislators will be bipartisan cooperation.
“Republicans who we find ourselves at odds with, as individual human beings, are decent folks who want to do the right thing for the state of Wisconsin, but they find themselves in a particular box — where they have to really tow the party line in such a way that their individuality and better instincts are not allowed to come to the front,” Miller says.
Republican State Senator Luther Olsen, of Ripon, echoes many of the same concerns as Miller. Olsen has served as a member of the State Senate since 2004, and says it’s time to pack it in and leave the future of Wisconsin politics to someone else.
“I would hope that people would look back at my career and say ‘He was a fair statesman and worked across the aisle,’” Olsen says.
In May, the Associated Press characterized the lack of incumbents running for re-election to the state senate as an “exodus” from the state legislature.
In fact, the number of senators stepping down this year isn’t too far outside of the norm for an election year. There are seven members of the Wisconsin senate not seeking re-election this year, equal to the amount of seats vacated in 2014.
Also in 2014, twenty members of the state assembly weren’t seeking re-election, compared to thirteen this year.
These seats are up for grabs as Wisconsin’s parties fight tooth and nail for every last district. Republicans are only about seven seats away from a supermajority — three in the state assembly and four in the state senate.
If Republicans attained that supermajority, they’d be able to override Governor Tony Evers’ vetoes.
The fight over vacant state legislature seats may increase during the 2022 elections — just after state district lines are redrawn with the numbers from this year’s census. In 2012, shortly after the 2010 census, more than 35 members of the state legislature filed notices of non-candidacy.
(Photo: Chali Pittman)