While Republican Rep. Bryan Steil had no trouble winning reelection last year in a southeastern Wisconsin seat that only narrowly backed Donald Trump, one prominent Democrat thinks that 2024 could be very different―and he may be right, especially if the incoming progressive majority on the state Supreme Court strikes down the state's gerrymandered congressional map. A notable Democrat is also mulling a campaign to the northeast against Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher around Green Bay, but as we’ll discuss, his 8th District would likely be a tough lift even with new boundaries.
We’ll start in the 1st District, where Steil was elected in 2018 to succeed none other than Speaker Paul Ryan. Following the most recent round of redistricting, the new map dropped Trump’s 2020 margin of victory from 54-45 to just 50-48, but the incumbent won his third term last year by a comfortable 54-45 spread against an underfunded foe. Liberals fared considerably better here, though, in last month’s officially nonpartisan Supreme Court race, as analyst Drew Savicki calculated that progressive Janet Protasiewicz carried the district 53-47 as part of her 56-44 statewide rout.
While no prominent names have publicly expressed interest in taking on Steil just yet, Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan recently told WisPolitics that he sees a way to win both the 1st and 3rd, another GOP-held district in the state's southwestern corner. Pocan, who represents the safely blue 2nd District right between the other two seats, listed several local elected officials he thinks could run strong campaigns in the 1st:
Racine Mayor Cory Mason
former Racine Municipal Judge Rebecca Mason
State Rep. Tip McGuire
State Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer
State Sen. Mark Spreitzer
Rebecca Mason, who stepped down four years ago, is married to Cory Mason, who won reelection last month 57-43 against a Republican alderman. Steil, for his part, didn’t rule out leaving the House to wage a campaign against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin back in late March, but he’s rarely been mentioned as a potential statewide candidate.
The situation is quite a bit different in the Green Bay area where OB-GYN Kristin Lyerly, who is one of the three doctors participating in Attorney General Josh Kaul’s challenge to the state’s 1849 abortion ban, says she’s thinking about taking on Gallagher. Lyerly, who lost a campaign against GOP state Rep. John Macco 52-48 in 2020 as Trump was carrying his 88th Assembly District 50-48, acknowledged that it would be difficult to win here in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel but added, “But I did my OB-GYN residency with four kids under 10. I have no fear of hard work.”
It would indeed take a good deal of hard work for any Democrat to prevail in a constituency that favored Trump by a wide 57-41 in 2020 and that Savicki says backed conservative Dan Kelly 52-48 over Protasiewicz. It’s possible that Gallagher, whom NRSC chair Steve Daines has talked up as a potential Baldwin foe, won’t be around to defend the 8th, though Republicans would still be the favorites to hold it. (The congressman continues to evade questions about his plans, though like Steil he’s yet to actually say no to a Senate run.)
But the most important question is whether the 2024 elections will be fought under different boundaries. Protasiewicz, who blasted the state's GOP-crafted maps as “rigged” during her campaign, will give progressives a majority on the bench when she takes office on Aug. 1, and the liberal group Law Forward says it plans to file a suit soon thereafter arguing that the state constitution forbids partisan gerrymandering. Northeast Wisconsin’s hard turn to the right during the Trump era means that even a fairer congressional map may not be enough to threaten the GOP’s control of Gallagher’s seat, but it could make life tougher for Steil.
P.S. As Pocan alluded, Badger State Democrats are also hoping to retake Southwestern Wisconsin’s 3rd District. Republican Derrick Van Orden beat Democratic state Sen. Brad Pfaff 52-48 last year, two years after Trump carried it by the same margin, and Savicki says that Protasiewicz won this seat 55-45. However, a new court-drawn congressional map could also make this district more winnable for Democrats just like it could the 1st.
The Journal-Sentinel reported in late March that Pfaff was considering a rematch, though there have been no updates about his plans since then. In that same article, though, businesswoman Rebecca Cooke and former CIA officer Deb McGrath, who both lost the primary to Pfaff, each showed some interest in running again.