Conservative wins in Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District, securing GOP impeachment power

Republican Dan Knodl's win gives GOP supermajority in state Senate

Clouds and a blue sky are seen behind the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

While conservatives took a beating in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race Tuesday, Republicans scraped by to claim a key win in a special election in Milwaukee’s suburbs. A victory there gives the GOP a two-thirds majority in the state Senate and with it, the power to impeach state officials.

Shorty after midnight with 98 percent of the vote counted, Dan Knodl, a state representative, declared victory in the special election for the Wisconsin’s 8th Senate District. Speaking to supporters, he said there were still votes to be counted — the outstanding votes were from the town of Lisbon in Waukesha County, “but those votes are in my favor.”

The Associated Press called the race around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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Dan Knodl
Republican candidate for state Senate Dan Knodl. Photo courtesy of Dan Knodl

Knodl had just over 50 percent of the vote, less than a percentage point ahead of Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin in the contest for the seat vacated by the retirement of longtime Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling.

Habush Sinykin issued a statement Wednesday at about 10 a.m. saying she had called Knodl to concede the race.

Knodl issued a statement early Wednesday thanking his supporters. And he thanked Darling, who represented the district for three decades before her retirement in December.

“I intend to honor and continue her incredible legacy by bringing a reasonable, yet effective voice to the Senate,” he said.

While he didn’t mention Habush Sinykin by name, Knodl offered a hand to her and her supporters.

“Thank you to my opponent for running a tough race. Whether you voted for me or my opponent, I intend to resolutely and faithfully represent all of my constituents,” he said.

Knodl, of Germantown, has been a state representative since 2008. Habush Sinykin is an environmental lawyer and business owner from Whitefish Bay who was making her first run for political office. It was a nail-bitingly close race in what in the past would have been a safe Republican district. The lead between the two candidates flipped several times as the vote was counted. At midnight, they were separated by just 533 votes in a race where nearly 74,000 votes were cast.

By the time Habush Sinykin conceded Wednesday, Knodl’s lead had widened to nearly 1,300 votes with 99 percent of the vote counted, the Republican taking just shy of 51 percent of the vote.

In her statement Wednesday, Habush Sinykin said she was proud of her campaign. “In just four short months, we put together a campaign that came within two points of flipping a district that was unfairly gerrymandered to elect Republicans in every election,” she said. “The fight to continue moving Wisconsin forward is not over.”

The 8th Senate District covers parts of north and northwest suburban Milwaukee. The district dips into Milwaukee County, but is largely made up of portions of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties, including communities like Fox Point, Germantown, Mequon and Menomonee Falls. The region, known as the WOW counties, has been dominated by Republican candidates for years, but Democrats have been making inroads in the suburbs and hoped to have a chance of taking the district.

The close margin was certainly influenced by strong turnout for liberal-leaning voters in the Supreme Court race, but it also followed a trend of declining Republican power in the district.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson won about 63 percent of the district vote in 2016, but that dropped to 54 percent in 2022, according to a Marquette Law School analysis. In 2012 and 2014, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker won about 67 percent of the vote in the current boundaries of the 8th Senate District. In 2018, that fell to 60 percent as he lost to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers statewide.

And in the November election, Donald Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels received about 52 percent of the vote in the district, that narrow margin helping Evers secure a second term.

Knodl win secures Senate impeachment power

With Knodl’s win, Republicans will secure a two-thirds majority in the state Senate. While they still lack a veto-proof majority in the Legislature, holding the 8th District means the GOP’s senate majority is now large enough that they have the power under the state Constitution to impeach state officials for “corrupt conduct in office or for the commission of a crime or misdemeanor” without having to secure any votes from Democratic senators. Impeachment would remove the official from office.

In an interview with WISN-TV’s political talk show “UpFront” prior to the election, Knodl said if elected, he would consider impeaching Milwaukee County court officials, including judges and District Attorney John Chisholm. Knodl said one of those he would consider voting to remove from office would be Janet Protasiewicz.

“The judges, the circuit court judges, I think, have failed the community by releasing or not having high enough bail on these criminals, the perpetrators. And so they need to be looked at. And Janet Protasiewicz, which is a circuit court judge right now in Milwaukee, and she has failed,” Knodl said on the show.

Asked directly during his campaign if he would vote to impeach Protasiewicz, he said “I would consider it.” Protasiewicz was elected to the Supreme Court Tuesday. She will join the court in August.

Mordecai Lee is professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former state legislator. With Knodl’s win in the 8th District giving the GOP a two-thirds majority, Lee said Republicans may well use their impeachment powers to target Democrats, perhaps even the governor. Lee said while that would likely be unpopular with the statewide electorate, Republican leadership is willing to take risks while focusing on the views of their core voters.

“I would not be surprised if the two-thirds majority wants to entertain proposing and pursuing those scenarios, and in a sense they would say to themselves why not, this is what the Constitution gives us the power to do,” Lee said.