The stakes are enormous. If Democrats manage to gain Senate control, they can create gridlock and for the first time in four years stop GOP initiatives from passing.
Republicans go into this campaign season with a 60-39 majority in the Assembly, an 18-15 edge in the Senate and two big advantages in trying to keep their majorities. GOP lawmakers redrew legislative district boundaries in 2011 to consolidate support and help their incumbents hold their seats for the next decade. Legislative boundaries are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes. And it's a non-presidential year. Elections in those years typically see reduced turnout and tend to skew Republican because voters who do show up tend to be older and wealthier, said Mordecai Lee, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political scientist.
The game shifted a bit, though, after 27 lawmakers, including 14 Republican representatives and three Republican senators, announced they won't seek re-election - the highest number of retirees since 2000. But Democrats have acknowledged Republicans did such a thorough job with redistricting that they can't take the chamber even with 14 openings; all they can hope for is to make enough gains to put them within striking distance come 2016.
The Senate could be a different story. If Democratic incumbents win and the party takes the three open seats, they would have control of that chamber. Democratic leaders have promised an all-out offensive to grab the seats, but the odds are against them, said former Democratic state representative Mordecai Lee.
"Open seats change the calculus," Lee said. "That said, the conventional wisdom has not changed. Republicans will likely retain the majority in both the Assembly and Senate."
The three open Republican seats belong to Senate President Mike Ellis of Neenah; Joe Leibham of Sheboygan; and Dale Schultz of Richland Center. Ellis, who represents the Fox Valley, decided to quit after a secret recording surfaced of him discussing setting up an illegal political action committee. Leibham, who represents the Sheboygan and Manitowoc areas, has decided to run for retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Petri's seat in Washington. Schultz, a moderate, decided to retire after facing a primary challenge from conservative Republican Rep. Howard Marklein, of Spring Green.
Beau Stafford, executive director of the State Senate Democratic Committee, said Democrats are targeting Ellis and Schultz's open seats and consider Sens. Frank Lasee, R-Green Bay; Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon; and Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, vulnerable.
"It's going to be complete offense for it. We have a clear road to the majority with three open seats," Stafford said.
Adam Foltz, who heads the Committee to Elect Republican Senate, declined to comment.
Edward Miller, a political scientist at UW-Stevens Point, agreed with Lee's assessment that open seats give Democrats hope but redistricting may prevent them from taking advantage.
"Some (Senate districts) are large and as not as firmly controlled by Republicans," he said. "(But) I think Democrats have a very uphill fight."
The primary is set for August 12, with the general election on Nov. 4. Here's a quick look at some of the more interesting races:
-Democratic Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber and former Republican Rep. Roger Roth, both of Appleton, are running for Ellis' open Senate seat.
-Sheboygan Democrat Martha Laning and Oostbrug Republican Devin LeMahieu are squaring off for Leibham's open Senate slot.
-Five Republicans and two Democrats are vying for Republican Rep. Garey Bies' open seat, which represents Door and Kewaunee counties. Bies, of Sister Bay, is skipping re-election to run for secretary of state.
-Marklein isn't the only one with his eyes on Schultz's open Senate seat. Ernest Frederick Wittwer of Hillpoint and Pat Bomhack of Spring Green, are fighting for the Democratic nomination.
-Five Republicans and one Democrat hope to fill Marklein's Assembly seat.
-Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, a Milladore Democrat, faces a rematch with Tomah Republican Nancy VanderMeer. Vruwink defeated VanderMeer by just 144 votes in 2012.
-Three Democrats, including former Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, are vying to replace retiring Sen. Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat.