With a special election for a key seat in the state Senate looming, Wisconsin Democrats are deploying a strategy their counterparts across the nation used to great effect last year: spending money in a Republican primary to boost your preferred opponent into the general election.
Environmental attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin, the only Democrat running in the April 4 race to fill Wisconsin's vacant 8th Senate District, just launched her first TV ads, one of which touts her family's decision to keep their textile mill in-state as other factories moved elsewhere. The second spot takes a very different tack: A series of women ostensibly berate state Rep. Janel Brandtjen as "the most conservative you can be when it comes to abortion," saying she "wants to keep abortion illegal" and "even sponsored a bill to defund Planned Parenthood." A narrator chimes in to add that "Pro-Life Wisconsin named her legislator of the year" in 2016, while the second half of the ad highlights Habush Sinykin's pro-choice beliefs.
By now, this approach ought to feel familiar. In 2022, Democratic campaigns and organizations from coast to coast sought to elevate less-electable Republicans by running ads that appeared to attack them but always did so in ways designed to make those candidates more appealing to GOP primary voters. One especially successful effort by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the DGA, for instance, dubbed state Sen. Darren Bailey a proud Trump supporter who was "calling into question our elections and fighting for gun owners and the unborn." The far-right Bailey decisively won the Republican nomination with 57% of the vote, only for Pritzker to crush him 55-42 in November.
Habush Sinykin is hoping for something similar here. Brandtjen and another member of the state Assembly, Rep. Dan Knodl, are the two frontrunners for the GOP nod, but there's no question which of them would make for an easier target.
While Knodl is no moderate—he signed a letter to Mike Pence asking him not to certify the results of Joe Biden's victory—Brandtjen is so unhinged that even her fellow Republicans have shunned her. She is, unsurprisingly, an election conspiracy theorist, but her gravest sin (as her colleagues see it) was supporting a primary challenger to the speaker of the Assembly, Robin Vos. After Vos narrowly beat back his Trump-backed rival and won another term as leader last year, Republican lawmakers voted to eject Brandtjen from their caucus meetings, explicitly telling her that "continual issues from the past have led our caucus to lose trust in you."
Republicans have made the exact same calculations that Democrats have and know their better bet by far is Knodl, which is why the Republican State Leadership Committee has spent $150,000 on mail and TV ads so far to promote him with just two weeks to go before the Feb. 21 primary, according to WisPolitics. (There's no word yet whether the corresponding group on the other side, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, will likewise get involved, and the size of Habush Sinykin's buys have not been reported.)
Last year, Democratic gambits to pick weaker opponents were met with widespread pearl-clutching bordering on hysteria by those claiming that such efforts would damage democracy. But they worked out brilliantly: Daily Kos Elections identified 17 such efforts at varying levels of the ballot, eight of which resulted in a more extreme candidate winning the GOP primary. Democrats wound up winning all eight of those races. If Habush Sinykin can emulate that success, she, too, would strike a huge blow for democracy by rolling back the Senate supermajority Republicans just won in November thanks to gerrymandered maps.
Help Daily Kos-endorsed Democrat Jodi Habush Sinykin win this critical special election by donating $11 to her campaign now!