National exit polls showed that concern about corruption and ethics in government was the top concern of voters in Tuesday's election, outranking even the Iraq war as the biggest motivating factor for the housecleaning that significantly altered the political landscape at the national and state levels alike.
Corruption was a key issue in state legislative races in every nook and cranny of Wisconsin, and ethics became a deciding factor in several. All five Assembly incumbents who were thrown out of office – Steve Freese of Dodgeville, Rob Kreibich of Eau Claire, Judy Krawczyk of Green Bay, Gabe Loeffelholz of Platteville and Mark Pettis of Hertel – were implicated in the state caucus scandal and were among the state lawmakers identified in testimony during former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen's criminal trial as having received the illegal campaign help that Jensen was convicted of masterminding. All five also cast votes against ethics reform legislation, Senate Bill 1.
A sixth Assembly Republican incumbent may yet fall. Initial reports had Debi Towns up by six votes in the 43rd district. A canvass of the vote total now has Democratic challenger Kim Hixson ahead by nine. A recount will undoubtedly be done.
Overall, it was a rough day Tuesday for the Lobbyists' Legislature. Voters overcame formidable institutional obstacles to change – from incumbent-friendly district lines to huge cash advantages for current office holders – to significantly realign power at the Capitol.
In the Senate, three Republican incumbents were swept out and a Democrat won an open seat vacated by a Republican, giving the Democrats an 18-15 majority in the upper house. Democrats gained seats in the Assembly for the first time in 16 years, picking up a total of at least seven seats and narrowing the Republican majority to 53-46. Make that eight if Hixson ends up besting Towns in the 43rd. That would whittle the GOP majority in the lower house down to 52-47.
There were four other near misses for Democrats in Assembly races in the 47th, 80th, 87th and 96th districts. These four races were decided by a combined 1,054 votes out of more than 86,000 votes cast in those districts. Assuming Hixson holds on to his lead, then Democratic victories in three of these four districts would have given the Democrats a 50-49 majority in the Assembly. If just 624 votes in the three closest of those races had gone to challengers instead of the incumbents, Democrats would have taken over both houses of the Legislature.
Before the election, Capitol insiders were reminding everyone who would listen that all politics is local and insisting that strong anti-war sentiment and low approval ratings for President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress would not be a factor in state legislative races. But the Legislature has been rocked by political scandals mirroring those plaguing Congress, and a strong throw-the-bums-out impulse produced a much larger turnover than anyone had predicted.
Now it's time for the newly elected state Legislature and governor to get down to business and meaningfully address the electorate's top concerns. Campaign finance and ethics reform is at the top of the agenda for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Dave Zweifel, the editor of The Capital Times, is calling on Governor Jim Doyle in particular to take the lead in pushing reform.
Are they listening? Do they hear?