By James Rowen for   Published Oct 26, 2004 at 5:02 AM

Presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns are so dominating Wisconsin's news, important state political matters affected by the Nov. 2 balloting are getting overlooked.

Here's what's also on line for Milwaukee and the rest of the state:

  • Will the radical right in Wisconsin get stronger?

  • Is there a shift in the balance of power between the Legislature and the governor?

  • Will there be more cooperation between two houses of the Legislature?

  • Will majority Republicans add or lose legislative seats?

  • And how will the outcome of state legislative races affect the careers of some leading Wisconsin political figures?

At the heart of the matter are the fortunes of the deeply-conservative thinking in the state Assembly, best embodied by its controversial Republican Assembly speaker, John Gard, R-Peshtigo.

Here are some of the priorities in the Assembly, where Gard already manages a 59-40 majority -- a margin he hopes he can expand toward the veto-proof magic number, without any Democratic defectors, of 66:

  • A constitutional amendment freezing taxes and spending, thus shrinking the size and influence of government;

  • Another constitutional amendment barring gay marriages and civil unions;

  • Legislation legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons;

  • Legislation enacting a Wisconsin death penalty;

  • Structurally shifting state revenues away from cities and toward rural (and generally more conservative) areas. This is especially important to metro Milwaukee.

The Nov. 2 election returns will determine if those and other conservative staples can move more easily through what used to be the more moderate state Senate and ultimately, as the GOP hopes, to a governor's office in 2006 captured by the Republican right.

Under the political microscope on election night will be three highly contested state Senate races. All three seats were Democratic in the last session, and all three of the Republicans seeking them are conservatives.

One seat is in La Crosse, where the just-retired Mark Meyer, a Democrat, could be replaced by Dan Kapanke, the anti-abortion Republican whom Meyer defeated in 2000. The other two races are in Green Bay (the incumbent is Dave Hansen; the challenger is former senator Gary Drzewiecki), and in Kenosha (the incumbent is Bob Wirch, the challenger is Reince Priebus). The Kenosha race is attracting a lot of attention from the conservative radio talk show hosts in Milwaukee, who cast it as a referendum on taxes.

Dems are working furiously to retain all three seats. Republicans are working just as hard to win them. It's a good bet that at least one will change hands, and maybe two (three would be a real shocker), thus putting Senate Republicans that much closer to their dream goal of 22, the veto-proof majority that could override Doyle vetoes.

So the 2004 election will determine if the Legislature continues to march to the right, and how much difficulty Doyle will have governing. Put another way: will the 2004 state legislative races allow Gard to consolidate his influence in the Legislature, thus increasing his leverage on Doyle and setting in motion a Doyle-Gard collision in a 2006 gubernatorial contest?

If the opportunity is there -- that is, if his party gains in one or both houses -- rest assured that Gard will grab that opportunity and push the conservative agenda that has already made him Doyle's nemesis and a lightning rod for liberals (especially on gay marriage, gun control and fiscal issues).

It's a role Gard relishes, especially as a champion of Wisconsin's North Woods and basic family values that he says he represents: Criticism, he tells Milwaukee Magazine in its November issue, especially from liberal Democrats, "made my skin so thick it takes a chain saw to get through it."

A career legislator since a special election victory in 1987, Gard says he enjoys being underestimated by, and then defeating, opponents who misjudge him. He is a blunt-spoken ideologue, with persistence and a will to win not shared by every state politico.

Assuming he wins re-election in the 89th Assembly District, which runs north of Green Bay to the Wisconsin-Michigan border north of Marinette, Gard will have nine successive re-elections under his belt at the still-young age of 41.

What he did not have since becoming speaker in 2003 was easy synchronization with the state Senate. That led to the tabling earlier this year of one of his top goals, the adoption of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) as a constitutional amendment. But this problem was removed with the swift defeat in a September primary of Gard's obstacle -- state Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer, R-West Bend -- in what amounted to a Capitol coup.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, and a key Gard ally, ousted Panzer in a brutal blowout. Panzer's replacement in the leadership, state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, immediately pledged to better coordinate the Senate with the Assembly. TABOR will be up for a vote again in January.

It's an oversimplification to say that Grothman's triumph means that the most conservative candidate is a lock to win every contested legislative race. Or that Gard is a puppet-master who directed Grothman "Manchurian Candidate"-style to take out Panzer. Or that Gard will control Fitzgerald, too.

Gard said he repeatedly urged Grothman not to run against Panzer. And the two legislative houses do remain separate bodies, each with its own traditions and insider networks and cross-party alliances.

The Senate sees itself as the "upper house," and others view it sarcastically as "the house of cardinals.'' In short, plenty of senators will not want to appear to be subordinate to Gard.

What is clear, however, is that Republican activists, in and out of the Legislature, and their base in the right-to-life, pro-gun and small government movements, are increasingly on the right with Gard. Republican-ism these days is closer to Gard or Grothman, than, say, to more centrist Republicans like former Gov. Lee Dreyfus or former Senate Majority Leader Mike Ellis, R-Neenah.

Doyle and Gard are also not the only major political figures with an interest in the outcomes of Nov. 2.

U.S. 8th District Rep. Mark Green and Republican Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker are also likely challengers to Doyle. Along with Gard, these three possible Republican candidates will have to assess whether they are conservative enough to capture the rightist base of the Republican Party -- but not so far on the fringe that they stampede droves of moderates and independents into Doyle's camp.

The totals rolled up in the U.S. Senate race on Nov. 2 will help with that calculus. A strong Feingold win against the hard-edged Michels would make a candidacy by the more moderate Green look more appealing.

On the other hand, the larger the vote for Michels, the more it might encourage Gard, or Walker, to run.

And it needs to be said that Doyle's law enforcement credentials, the privileges of incumbency, a big campaign war chest, and other advantages currently give the governor a great shot at winning a second term against any opponent.

Insiders say that Doyle believes he could handle Green because the congressman is neither widely known nor identified with key state issues.

And Doyle, these same sources say, would love to battle with Gard or Walker, believing they are too conservative for statewide election and thinking they both have too much baggage (Gard his abrupt nature and far-right agenda, Walker his continuing county budget and pension problems).

For now, Gard will not say if he will run against Doyle, though he has demonstrated profound fund-raising skills and is probably the favorite among the party's influential ideologues. On the other hand, it's too soon for him to tip his hand. He has the second-most powerful spot in state government and the most influence statewide among the three potential challengers.

Whether he runs for governor or decides to remain a very powerful speaker, this much is certain: he'll aggressively push the agenda he believes in with religious fervor, whether as speaker, gubernatorial candidate, or both.

James Rowen, a veteran journalist, worked in the administration of former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

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