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Political Scientist: 18th State Senate District Could Flip To Democrats This November

Two Political Newcomers Compete For Seat As Republican Rick Gudex Steps Down

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Brennan Linsley/AP Photo

Following the redrawing of political boundaries in 2011, Wisconsin’s state legislative races have become, by and large, less competitive. But the Fox Valley’s 18th Senate District is an exception; the seat could go either way this November in the race between Democrat Mark Harris and Republican Dan Feyen.

But even if Democrats pick up the seat, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh political scientist Jim Simmons says it most likely won’t affect the balance of power in the Senate because the party would have to gain three seats to win a majority.

“I think Mark Harris might pick up this seat. I think it’s possible the 14th could flip, but I don’t see any other state Senate races that the Democrats could gain,” said Simmons, who predicts as much as a 70 percent turnout Nov. 8.

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Half of the state’s 16 Senate seats up for election this November aren’t contested.

The 18th District is a complex district covering the cities of Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, Waupun, and rural areas in between, Simmons said.

The cities of Oshkosh and Fond du Lac are different when it comes to politics, Simmons said. The northern part of the district has more young people and minorities.

“Fond du Lac is unusual in that it is one of the few cities that actually vote Republican,” Simmons said. “The city of Oshkosh tends to be in the Democratic column. So this should be, because it’s a presidential election year, it should be a high turnout race which generally favors the Democrats.”

Both candidates would be newcomers to state politics. The incumbent, Republican Rick Gudex, is stepping down.

Harris is no stranger locally. He’s been the Winnebago County Executive for 11 years and said he’s running because he’s concerned about the direction Wisconsin is going.

“I’m really concerned that the state has lost its focus on the long-term well-being of Wisconsin,” Harris said at a forum last week sponsored by the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin.

The Republicans in power “seem to be focusing on short term tax cuts, but they’re undermining K-12 education, the university system,” he added.

Feyen chairs the Fond du Lac Republican Party and said his goal is to close the area’s skills gap to fill jobs.

“There’s a lot of small manufacturers that people aren’t even aware of in this area,” Feyen said. “They might employ 10 people, they might employ 3,000 people.”

Harris acknowledges this could be a close race. If he wins, there’s a good chance he’ll most likely have to work with the Republican majority.

“Recapturing the majority may take more than one cycle, and I want to be an effective senator, so I have to be prepared to work across the aisle,” Harris said.

Harris’ pitch to voters is his record as Winnebago County Executive, where he says, “I’ve reduced the tax rate, I’ve reduced the county spending a little bit over the 11 years I’ve been there. But what I’m most proud of is I’ve cut the city’s debt nearly in half.”

As for Harris’ opponent, Feyen said he’s been building for a run, and Gudex’s departure made for perfect timing.

“I was always saying, ‘I’d do it when my kids were older.’ My kids are now older,” Feyen said.

Even though parts of the district are moving Democratic, Feyen said there is still a strong contingent that will vote for him.

“I think, possibly, it is becoming more competitive,” Feyen said. “But I think it’s still a very conservative area of Wisconsin, and we still have good conservative values here in the 18th Senate District.”

Joan Kaeding makes a habit of going to forums before elections and attended last week’s. Even though the presidential race has dominated discussions, she is especially interested in her district’s open seat.

“Local politics are very important,” Kaeding said. “Those are the people that represent us right down the street.”

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