As he prepared to launch an anti-labor agenda that would inspire massive protests and a popular outcry that has made Wisconsin ground zero in the battle over worker rights, Governor Scott Walker chose as his top lieutenant state Representative Michael Huebsch
A stalwart Republican who had been elected nine times to the legislature from a western Wisconsin district, Huebsch became Walker’s Department of Administration Secretary. A former Assembly Speaker, who had served with Walker for many years in the legislature, he emerged as the new governor’s most aggressive political henchman.
It was Huebsch who attempted, at the governor’s behest, to implement the governor’s assault on collective bargaining rights, in violation of a temporary restraining order issued by a Wisconsin judge. And it was Huebsch who blocked access to the state Capitol even after a judge ordered the building opened to citizens seeking to protest the governor’s policies.
So what do the western Wisconsin voters who reelected Huebsch by a landslide in 2010 think about the agenda of their former representative and the administration he has served without question? In the special election to fill Huebsch’s 94th District seat in the state Assembly, they had a chance to choose between a Republican who was backed by Walker, Huebsch and the corporate special-interests allied with the administration and a Democrat who was backed by the labor unions and grassroots activists who have battled Walker’s legislative proposals.
On Tuesday, western Wisconsin voters elected Democrat Steve Doyle to fill the formerly Republican seat.
The 94th district contest was one of three special elections Tuesday for legislative seats vacated by Walker appointees. The other two contests, held in overwhelmingly Republican districts, were as expected won by the GOP nominees.
It was the 94th District contest that was in the spotlight Tuesday, in part because the race was in a politically competitive part of the state, in part because it was for the seat formerly held by Walker’s top appointee. Out-of-state groups poured tens of thousands of dollars into a brutal attack campaign against Doyle, a mild-mannered lawyer who serves as chairman of the La Crosse County Board.
The comfortable 54-46 win for Democrat Doyle, which followed one of the most hotly-contested special election races in Wisconsin history, gives Assembly Democrats an additional seat as they prepare for the fight against a Republican budget proposal that would impose draconian cuts on education and public services.
While they are still in the minority, the Assembly Democrats have gained leverage for their argument that Republicans from swing districts — four of whom opposed the governor’s attack on collective-bargaining rights — should break more thoroughly with Walker. “This victory is a resounding condemnation of Gov. Walker’s anti-middle class agenda," explained Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha. "Tonight there should be many Republican legislators who represent districts typically less Republican than this one, questioning why they have rubberstamped Gov. Walker’s extreme policies and followed his divisive leadership… This election is a rejection of misplaced budget priorities that harm working families, a rejection of anti-democratic power grabs, a rejection of special interests over middle-class families."
The Democratic win in Huebsch’s old district also provides a boost for efforts to recall six Republican senators who voted to approve Walker’s assault on collective-bargaining rights and local democracy. One of the six Republican senators targeted for recall, Dan Kapanke, represents the western Wisconsin region that just elected a Democrat to the Huebsch seat.
"There’s no way to spin a Democratic win in this district as anything but a defeat for the governor and for the Republicans who have backed him," said state Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat and the former co-chair of the powerful legislative Joint Finance Committee. Pocan rallied support for Doyle, arguing as the special election approached that a Democratic win in the Assembly district would provide critical momentum for Democrat Jen Shilling who is challenging Kapanke in the recall election that is expected to be held in July.
Doyle agreed. On Tuesday night, when his win was confirmed, the Democrat referenced the coming recall race, telling supporters: “We’re going to send a second message to Madison that things have to change."