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Campaigns will spend ‘hundreds of millions’ in Wisconsin, party chairs say

Republican chair pledges to use all 'things that are legal and on the books,' including early voting

A blue yard sign says "VOTE" in white letters with an arrow. The Wisconsin state capitol can be seen in the background.
A sign directs voters to a polling location Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Political campaigns will likely spend hundreds of millions of dollars on elections in Wisconsin this year, agreed the state chairs of both major political parties at a forum in Madison on Thursday. 

Democrat Ben Wikler and Republican Brian Schimming would not commit to a specific dollar amount, but they agreed spending will be high for contests up and down the ballot.

Wisconsin is a pivotal state in the presidential race. There are also competitive races for the U.S. Senate, two congressional seats and new state legislative districts

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“It’s gonna be expensive this time at all levels, I think,” Schimming said. 

Wikler agreed.

Beyond the presidential race, Wisconsin voters will be making decisions on their representation in state Assembly districts for the first time since new voting maps shifted the political landscape, giving Republicans less of a lopsided advantage.

Winkler said voters who are motivated to try to help Democrats pick up seats in the state Assembly could help the party keep control of the U.S. Senate or flip control of the U.S. House.

“Those are some of the most powerful ballots in the history of American democracy. This year is a special year in that sense, ’cause the stakes are so big at every single level,” Wikler said. 

“And that will drive spending, that’ll drive volunteer activity everywhere,” he added. “I think it’ll drive up turnout, and I think it’ll drive up turnout in ways that move across races.” 

On presidential campaign visits 

The two men disagreed about what former President Donald Trump’s time away from the campaign trail while on trial in New York will mean for the race. 

Wikler said the Democratic ticket has stumped in Wisconsin 11 times since the 2022 midterm elections  — seven for President Joe Biden and four for Vice President Kamala Harris, who most recently visited La Crosse earlier this week. 

Former President Trump campaigned in Green Bay earlier this month, his first visit to the state since 2022. He is scheduled to return to the state next week.

“Their emphasis on the state is not because they’re confident in Wisconsin. It’s because they know they’re in trouble in Wisconsin.”

Brian Schimming

On the day of Trump’s Green Bay campaign rally, Winkler said, Wisconsin residents were voting in the presidential primary and local races. While Trump urged his followers to go to the polls, liberals won a majority of seats on the Green Bay city council that night.

“I think Democrats do better when voters hear President Biden’s message. And I think Democrats do much better when they hear President Trump’s message,” Wikler said. 

Schimming said the repeat visits by the incumbents have not resulted in any improvement in public opinion polls. The most recent Marquette University Law School survey showed Trump leading Biden 51-49 among registered voters in Wisconsin.

“Their emphasis on the state is not because they’re confident in Wisconsin. It’s because they know they’re in trouble in Wisconsin,” Schimming said. 

Schimming says he will encourage early voting, vote by mail 

The Republican Party must grow its voter base while also turning out its regular voters, Schimming said. He said there are many Wisconsinites who think and live like Republicans but have never voted. 

“There are hundreds of thousands of them out there. We know where they are and we’re going to go get them,” he said. 

“Another change that we’ve made, since I’ve been chairman, is I believe in going under the elections law we got on the books, not the ones I wish were on the books,” Schimming said. “It would be malpractice for me not to use every potential advantage we have on the books.”

A box of absentee ballots at the Lakeview Library on Madison's north side
A box of absentee ballots at the Lakeview Library on Madison’s north side on Nov. 3, 2020. Steven Potter/WPR

Republicans have struggled to incorporate vote by mail into recent campaigns because Trump has continued to cast doubt on its legitimacy and security.

“I guarantee you, we are not going to sit back and allow another party to take advantage of things that are legal and on the books. We’re not. We aren’t doing that. We’re going for the win,” Schimming said. 

Wikler said Democrats have long supported making it easier to vote. 

“I would much rather live in a world where Republicans are competing to get the most votes instead of trying to get a certain kind of vote and then throw all the other votes away,” Wikler said. “I think that’s an improvement for our democracy. I hope that your presidential nominee sticks to that plan.”