Jessica King in Oshkosh

A victory by state Sen. Jessica King appears key for Democrats to hold any potential power in the Senate

In all likelihood, the Nov. 6 election will put Republicans in full control of state government again.

While President Obama is likely to carry Wisconsin, his margin of victory will need to be much larger than expected to provide the coattails on which Democrats can retain control of the state Senate, which they currently rule with a 17-16 majority.

For the GOP eager to take back the Senate, the most likely  pickup comes in the district of retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, in northeastern Wisconsin. The Republican-leaning district was made slightly more so as a result of the GOP-led redistricting last year, and the Democratic nominee, Susan Sommer, entered the race with less name recognition than her Republican opponent, state Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst.

“We’re the underdog there,” acknowledges Zac Kramer, executive director of the State Senate Democratic Committee.

Kramer nevertheless holds out hope that a big night for Obama could translate into a “surprise” win for Sommer, whom he credits for being a “better candidate than people expected.”

The focus of both parties, however, is the 18th Senate District seat currently held by Democrat Jessica King, D-Oshkosh. The race is not only the subject of major spending by King and her GOP opponent, Fond du Lac Councilman Rick Gudex, but is receiving an intense cash investment by outside groups, including the business-backed Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and the union-backed Greater Wisconsin Committee.

Why is the race so important?

A King win would likely keep Senate Democrats in a strong position. The GOP – assuming it picks up the 12th District – would only have a one-seat majority. Democrats would expect to occasionally partner with moderate Republicans, notably Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, to prevent Gov. Scott Walker from pushing through new conservative policies.

Conversely, a Gudex victory would likely give the GOP an 18-15 majority, and prevent Republican leadership the headache of negotiating with Schultz on any number of issues.

Both parties project confidence in the 18th District race, but acknowledge it is very close.

“(It’s) a dead heat,” says Dan Romportl, executive director of Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, in a one-sentence response to an email requesting comment. Attempts to gain further comments were unsuccessful.

A number of Republicans behind the scenes, however, believe the race is trending in their favor.

But Kramer insists Democratic polling – which he will not release – shows King up on Gudex by “a couple points.”

While Republicans were at first targeting other incumbent Democrats, including Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, and Sen. Jen Shilling, D-La Crosse, Kramer says the GOP and conservative groups have largely pulled out of those contests, instead dedicating their money to Gudex’s cause.

A glimpse at the expenditures of the Greater Wisconsin Committee gives a sense of which Senate races Democrats feel are vulnerable.

This election season, GWC has spent no money on behalf of Shilling, slightly more than $300,000 on behalf of Hansen and nearly $700,000 on behalf of King.

Take away the outside spending and the Democratic and Republican campaigns appear comparable financially, with the notable exception of the 12th Senate District, where Sommer is being heavily outspent by Tiffany.

But the amount the candidates and their party committees have raised may be pathetically beside the point. In keeping with recent trends, outside groups are poised to spend much more than the candidates themselves.

The spending totals won't be known until well after the election, but Kramer predicts roughly $4.5 million will be spent on the Oshkosh-area race.

“It’s crazy,” he says.

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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.

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